For today’s installment of READ LOCAL SUNDAY we feature Gerald Elias, violinist and former Utah Symphony associate concertmaster and author of the Daniel Jacobus mystery series, the most recent of which, Playing with Fire (Severn Press, 2016), is a finalist for this year’s 15 Bytes Book Award in fiction.
15 Bytes caught up with Elias via email shortly after his return from Japan, where he was busy doing what professional musicians do: concertizing. An excerpt from his Playing with Firefollows.
15B: You’ve written four books in the Daniel Jacobus mystery series, and you’ve described Jacobus as “a blind, curmudgeonly, reclusive, and brilliant violin teacher who has a knack for solving murders, but only after getting himself into very deep hot water.” Other than his (mis)adventures, what do you feel you’ve tapped that has made this guy so memorable to so many readers?
GE: Jacobus is totally genuine, totally honest. What you see is what you get. He doesn’t abide fools or phonies, and says the things to them WE would love to say if only it were socially acceptable. Jacobus is as absolutely loyal to music as he is to his friends Yumi and Nathaniel, and would defend them to his death. His sarcasm and biting wit mask his vulnerability, having survived more tragedies in life than anyone deserves. His courage and strength of will enable him to forge ahead in an inhospitable world. Deep down, he has a heart of gold.
15B: You’ve extended your career as a professional musician to include a suite of enterprises, including the Jacobus mysteries. Then there are the audio books of The Devil’s Trill and Danse Macabre (which you can currently pre-order in time for Halloween), combing clue-providing music that you perform. And, of course, live readings with live music, along with a really cool blog that uses the classical music work to launch all kinds of cultural and social/political commentary. Are you the poster boy for artists to think outside their discipline?
GE: Since I was a little kid I’ve just wanted to “do stuff.” To give myself challenges. Music — whether performing, conducting, composing, or teaching — has been a great joy, providing rewards on so many different levels. That being said, I also love writing and have played various sports longer than I’ve played the violin. (I’m still waiting to be signed by the Yankees.) I also enjoy gardening, the outdoors, traveling, cooking, drawing, reading … You name it. It just turned out that music and writing were the two things that have stuck as a profession. I think that in order to get the most out of life, everyone — regardless of their profession — should do the things they have a passion for. After all, the worst that can happen is that you’re terrible at it. Big deal. I tried teaching myself the piano. Fuggetaboutit.
15B: You link each of your books to a particular piece of classical music. When you sit down to write the next book, do you pick the music first, or do you come up with the story and plot before aligning it with music that you are aware of? In short, what’s your process?
GE: Devil’s Trill, my first book, was originally called “Violin Lessons” and was going nowhere. “The Devil’s Trill” violin sonata, by Giuseppe Tartini, was a tangential afterthought in the story. But the more I thought about the music and the diabolical story behind the music the more potential resonance I saw between it and my book. I could talk for a half hour about the myriad levels of inspiration that connection gave me, but suffice it to say that in the following three books, Danse Macabre, Death & the Maiden, and Death & Transfiguration, I actively sought those same connections. Though I had a broad plot and character outline of those stories in mind from the outset, the music and the stories behind the music were constant generators of ideas.
My last two books, Playing with Fire and Spring Break, are somewhat different. They are loosely based upon Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As you may know, Vivaldi wrote sonnets to serve as his own inspiration for composing the concertos, and I’ve gone the next step. I chose settings representative of each concerto and venue where musicians are prone to want to kill each other. Thus, Playing with Fire takes place in the dead of winter in a violin shop. while Spring Break takes place at the vernal equinox at a music conservatory. I anticipate the settings for my next two books will be a summer music festival and a concert tour, respectively.
15B: Attendance at classical music concerts has steadily declined over the years, but classical/symphonic/chamber music is really everywhere in our lives (I’m thinking of movie and television scores). What’s the future of classical music in your view and what role do artists like you play in that future?
A: I think the obituary of classical music is premature and a bit nearsighted. Why premature? Certainly, it’s a challenge to fill concert halls nowadays when there’s so much competing entertainment, both live and on our devices. But classical music has always been a “niche market,” and at any given time some orchestras have been more successful than others at building and retaining audiences. Also, our public schools have largely failed our youth by removing music and art as an integral component of education. On the bright side it should be noted that the number of cities who can boast of professional symphony orchestras continues to grow. Even during the “golden era” of Toscanini and Koussevitsky there were only a handful of such orchestras and most orchestral musicians had second jobs in order to make ends meet.
Why nearsighted? Look at the big picture. We not only have major symphony orchestras. We have semi-professional, community, university, student, and youth orchestras everywhere. There’s hardly a community anywhere that doesn’t have an orchestra of some sort. We have more serious college music programs than ever. We have chamber music, contemporary music, opera, and a burgeoning interest in Baroque music. And, look around the world! Asia (China, Japan, and Korea) has gone crazy over classical music in the past fifty years. South America has more classical music going on than anyone would imagine, and of course there’s always Europe, the origin of so much of our incredible music tradition.
All in all, I’m very optimistic that Mozart and Bach will continue to delight listeners for many years to come.
15B: Can you give us a preview of Jacobus’s next adventure?
My working title at the moment is “Cloudy with a Chance of Murder.” It will be based upon Vivaldi’s stormy concerto, “Summer,” from the Four Seasons and will take place at a summer music festival (I’m conjuring one on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake). During the course of a very serious thunderstorm, a member of one of the performing ensembles will be killed. Jacobus’s former beloved student, Yumi Shinagawa, is a performer at the concert, and becomes enmeshed in the search for the killer.
That’s all I’m going to say!
Excerpt from Playing with Fire
by Gerald Elias
For the fourth time, the telephone rang. Its shrill G-sharp, ugly and discordant, clashed with the sublime G major chord that ended the Pastorale of the Christmas Concerto.
The phone startled Trotsky, who cradled his treasured bone in his gaping maw and skulked off, seeking refuge in a far corner.
“Answer it,” Jacobus muttered to whomever.
“Are you sure?” Yumi asked.
“Yeah. It’s driving me nuts. They just don’t give up. And, Jesus Christ, on Christmas Eve.”
Yumi let it ring ten times before she lifted the receiver.
“It’s Amadeo Borlotti,” Yumi said to Jacobus, her hand over the receiver.
Borlotti? Jacobus thought. The name was vaguely familiar. Yes, it came back to him now. A small-time violin repairman whose reputation was untarnished by notable achievement. Borlotti had plied his trade not so far away in Egremont Falls, selling strings and supplies and patching up student fiddles. Well, a living’s a living. There was never a shortage of fiddles dropped “by accident” on the gymnasium floor by passive aggressive adolescents after having etched their initials on the instruments’ backs with penknives. Jacobus would never have trusted his precious Gagliano with someone like Borlotti, who, as far as he knew, was little more than a hack.
Why the hell’s Amadeo Borlotti be calling me on Christmas Eve, and at this time of night?
Jacobus rolled over on the creaking couch, his back to the rest of the world.
“Tell him I don’t need any rosin. When I do I’ll call him. Should be in about five years, more or less.”
“It’s not that,” said Yumi. “He wants to come see you.”
“Fine.” Jacobus heard Nathaniel stir. “Nathaniel, are we doing anything between now and New Year’s Eve?”
“Nope. Free as birds.” Nathaniel yawned and made his way to the jigsaw puzzle.
“What I thought. Yumi, invite Borlotti sometime next year. Shall we say April? Maybe July?”
“He wants to come over tonight. He says it’s urgent. Here, you talk to him.”
Before Jacobus could protest further, Yumi pressed the phone into his hand. He felt Yumi’s weight, light though it was, settle onto his hip. He held the receiver to his ear.
“Mr. Jacobus,” said Borlotti. “There is something I must tell you. It’s very important. You are the only one who would understand. It’s very important.”
“Third time’s a charm,” Jacobus said.
“I don’t understand.”
“You’ve already told me twice it’s very important. One more time, maybe I’ll believe you.”
Jacobus curled his legs to give Yumi more room, setting his stomach to growling again.
“It…it is a long story. I don’t feel right talking over the phone. May I come to your home? Tonight? Now? It’s only twenty minutes. I can be right there.”
“I don’t want to be a party-pooper, Borlotti,” said Jacobus, “but it’s past my bedtime, and my elves have informed me my driveway’s already covered with snow. If you killed yourself trying to navigate it at night my insurance company would raise my premium.”
“Listen, Borlotti, tomorrow’s Sunday. Christmas Day. Why don’t you stop by in the morning? It should be plowed by then, and I tell you what? I’ll have a pot of Christmas coffee going. We can eat figgy pudding and watch Heiditogether.”
“How early tomorrow?”
“Whenever the cock crows, or nine o’clock, whichever is later.”
“All right, Mr. Jacobus, if that is what it must be. Thank you.” He added, “Merry Christmas.”
“And God bless us, every one,” Jacobus said and hung up.
“That was nice of you to invite him over,” Yumi said.
“My Christmas spirit. How could I say no? He was nervous as Trotsky getting a Parvo shot.”
“Why does he need to see you?”
“Beats me. The last time I went to his shop was years ago for an emergency repair. My student what’s-her-face came for a lesson and her soundpost collapsed.”
“Poor kid,” said Yumi.
“Poor kid? Lucky me! She had a tone a chainsaw would envy.”
“I have a student who sounds like that.”
“Maybe it’s her son.”
“Could be. I wish I had earplugs when he comes for a lesson.”
“What advice do you give him?”
“Switch to trombone.”
“I learned from the best.”
“Advice like that could put people like Borlotti out of business,” Nathaniel interjected, taking a moment from his concentration on the jigsaw puzzle.
“I went to Mr. Borlotti’s shop on my way back to the city once,” said Yumi, “just to buy a set of strings. He was a very sweet man.”
“Ah, I like my women like I like my bagels!” Jacobus exclaimed.
“What do you mean?”
“Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.”
“Like your head, with a hole in the middle.”
“How dare you talk to your elder like that?”
“As I said, I learned from the best.”
Yumi pinched Jacobus’s bristly cheek, making him smile.
“Do you want me to tidy up the house for Mr. Borlotti?” she asked.
“No, for God’s sake!” Jacobus crooned croakingly, “I’ve grown accustomed to this place.”
“No doubt,” said Nathaniel. “You’ve had the same junk for forty years.”
“Wall-to-wall clutter becomes you,” Yumi said to Jacobus.
“But when he’s here Mr. Borlotti might want to be able to walk in a straight line.”
“To quote my favorite hero,” Jacobus said, “‘Bah! Humbug!’” Something clicked in his memory. “And what was the name of Borlotti’s shop? Something tacky. Like bad Dickens.”
“Ye Olde Violin Shoppe,” said Nathaniel.
“That’s it! That’s one reason I never went back. What’s with this ‘ye’ crap?” Jacobus lamented. “It’s bad enough they misspell words like ‘old’ and ‘shop’ when they put a damn ‘e’ at the end of them, but ‘ye’ doesn’t even mean ‘the.’ It means ‘you’!”
“You sound like Andy Rooney,” said Yumi.
“Andy Rooney!” Jacobus barked. “Andy Rooney’s a curmudgeon!”
“Ho! Ho!” laughed Nathaniel. “And what may you be, Jake?”
“Me?” he replied pensively. “I am an analyst.”
The three lapsed back into their easy silence, eventually broken when Yumi volunteered to do the dishes. Jacobus mumbled that since she had washed them the night before, he’d take care of it. He would have preferred waiting until morning, but if he did, the mice would make his house their winter mecca and crap all over the place. Ah, the hell with the mice. He’d do the dishes tomorrow.
“And why were you so damn reluctant to answer the phone just now?” he asked Yumi.
“Oh, just superstition,” she said.
“For Japanese, the number four is unlucky. It was the fourth time the phone rang.”
“What’s so unlucky about it?”
“One of our words for the number four, shi, has another meaning.”
“It also means thirteen?” Jacobus said, pleased with his wit.
“No. It also means death.”
Join Gerald Elias this Thursday, October 26th at 7:00 pm at the 15th Street Gallery (1519 S. 1500 E. in Salt Lake) as he reads & performs diabolical music from his newly released Devil’s Trill audiobook & mystery novel, Spring Break. Reception to follow catered by Avenues Bistro. A requested minimum donation of $40 ($25 with student ID) as well as a donation from book sales will benefit the student scholarship fund for Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Info: 801-671-0351 or firstname.lastname@example.org
A former violinist with the Boston Symphony and longtime associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, Gerald Elias has performed on five continents as violinist, conductor, composer, and teacher. Since 2004 he has been music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts in Salt Lake City, and continues to perform with the Boston Symphony at their Tanglewood summer festival. He was first violin of the Abramyan String Quartet from 1993-2003 and has been a faculty member of the University of Utah School of Music since 1989. A native New Yorker, Elias resides in Salt Lake City and West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he continues to expand his musical and literary horizons.