Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Interview: Gerald Elias

Ray Taras is a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute. His many books include the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia and Understanding Ethnic Conflict, 4th edition. At the Campaign for the American Reader, he covers the Sundance Film Festival and regularly reviews world literature.

He recently sat down with concert violinist and debut novelist Gerald Elias to talk about Devil's Trill, Elias' award winning first book. Taras writes:
A methods book intended for violin students is not the stuff a great novel is traditionally made of. But that is exactly how Gerald Elias’ Devil’s Trill was first conceived. I wanted to learn more about how a violinist who has played in orchestras conducted by most of the world’s great conductors—and with nearly all the outstanding violinists of the past forty years—turned a textbook into a thriller built around the mystery of a stolen Stradivarius. We sat down to coffee and pastry on a Monday morning in October at Cucina, a cafĂ© in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood.

“I haven’t played under Barenboim or Mehta,” Elias pointed out to me when I expressed my admiration for his professional career. Currently Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, it has been as violinist with the Boston Symphony during its summer season at Tanglewood that he has had the opportunity to perform with the world’s most acclaimed artists. Elias completed his studies in music at Yale and took part in an early iteration of the Montreal Violin Competition in the 1970s. He joined the Boston Symphony at age 23! He told me that even then he was not the youngest member of this fabled orchestra.

Much of this biography constitutes the background material for Devil’s Trill, a novel which lampoons contemporary classical music culture. Among its pathologies, it requires even prepubescent kids to enter ruthless, frequently unfair, and artistically counterproductive international competitions to make their marks and their careers. “Music as a reason to compete with each other rather than to play with each other is not what it should be about, especially for young people,” Elias says. The novel describes how the classical music industry has deviated from such ideals and has taken full advantage of the “pretty little things” to capture and capitalize on audience interest. Thus, an impresario in the book promises a precocious young female talent a ten-concert engagement that includes a tight-fitting concert gown with side slit--“the works” as he puts it. This marketing strategy does pay off, with larger audiences for under age 20 soloists even as overall concert-going has been falling off.

Facts like these suggested that Elias had done some empirical research for his book, as so many contemporary authors of fiction do these days. I was reminded of my much-published, highly-praised colleague who spent this past summer in east London working out how she could incorporate the setting into her new novel. It was surprising to learn, then, that Elias had not only not done research but hadn’t workshopped the novel either. In his words, “I simply wanted to write an interesting version of a method book.” This meant using his own experiential knowledge, remaining true to his profession as musician, and narrating an entertaining story.

The mystery of who stole the Stradivarius is a compelling story line. The voices of the music world ring true—the universal acclaim for the Cremonese violin makers, the unusual bowing techniques used to avoid pain and injury, the stress on the aesthetics of music rather than “mere virtuosity.” The novel doesn’t belittle the achievements of the nine-year-old who wins the violin competition; as Elias told me, the real issue is “what should be done with her ability?”

Elias wrote the book over a twelve-month period while on sabbatical in Italy. Over the next ten years, with expert advice from fellow musicians, especially those few who had drifted into the world of letters, he transformed it into the engaging page turner that it is now. He wrote his second novel, Danse Macabre, due out next year, in 2008, also over a short period while on sabbatical from the Utah Symphony. The gargantuan figure of the veteran violin teacher Jacobus, at the epicenter of the stolen Stradivarius story, an unwavering campaigner on behalf of the primacy of aesthetics in music, and a pitiless cynic sneering at New York’s classical music cliques, reappears in the second novel.

Elias blends inventiveness and experience seamlessly to construct plot, develop character, and describe space. Even some of his fellow violinists, he observed mischievously, believed that the Italian violin maker at the origin of this novel’s story actually existed. By contrast, the meticulous account of social mores in a Japanese provincial town come from the author having lived in that country for a year.

As a waiter interrupted us to ask if we needed a refill of coffee, I managed to interject a couple of final questions about Elias’s professional career and ambitions. Almost as an afterthought, he mentioned that he had recently composed a piece for mezzosoprano, viola, and piano called “The Raven,” after Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, which was to be performed in Philadelphia at a bicentenary celebration of the poet’s birth. I found in background notes that the first string quartet Elias composed, “When Mr. Mozart Came Home from the Ball,” includes narrative and variations serving as introduction to string playing for young audiences. It follows in the spirit of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” and, though I haven’t heard it, its pedagogical purpose, wrapped in artistry, surfaces as a leitmotif that characterizes much of Elias’ creative activities.

Jerry regularly conducts as well: he will lead a chamber orchestra in works of Baroque composers at a December “Vivaldi by Candlelight” concert in Salt Lake City. The event is sponsored by the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, which partners with the U.S. State Department in promoting global understanding. Indeed, that goal has taken Elias around the world in the promotion of universal cultural values that can bridge differences.

My instincts had served me well. Not only had I found Devil’s Trill a remarkable debut novel with a refreshingly distinctive voice, aesthetically far removed from much of today’s over-researched, over-workshopped fictional works, as well as from often self-indulgent memoir literature. The depth and breadth that resonate in the work of this author are rarely associated with a readable novel.

“Musicians aren’t just the passionate artists that people think of us as. We’re intelligent, creative, thinking people as well.” As throughout our one-hour conversation, Elias phrased this idea in a way that would reflect well on his profession.--Ray Taras
Read an excerpt from Devil's Trill, and learn more about the book and author at Gerald Elias' website.

Hear Elias perform Tartini's Devil's Trill Sonata.

The Page 69 Test: Devil's Trill.

--Marshal Zeringue