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Death and Transfiguration - a novel by Gerald Elias

July 2012 The Boston Globe

Violinist shares his Tanglewood tales of murder

By Nancy Shohet West - The Boston Globe - July 12, 2012

As a longtime violin teacher and professional musician, first with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and currently as associate concertmaster for the Utah Symphony, Gerald Elias thought he might write a book for would-be professional musicians, covering the basics of violin technique as well as issues such as how to prepare for an audition.
Yet he realized that if he had been handed a book like this when he was a young music student, “I would have fallen asleep in about five minutes,” he said. But how to make an instructional manual for violinists a little more engrossing? Well, why not work in a whodunit murder mystery?

It sounds like a joke, but Elias was absolutely serious about the idea. He grew up reading mysteries; his earliest memories are of taking possession of his older siblings’ Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew volumes. And his agent liked the idea, too.
So in 2009, Elias published his first novel, “Devil’s Trill.” A contract with St. Martin’s Press led to a second book, “Danse Macabre,” and since then he has published two more, “Death and the Maiden” and “Death and Transfiguration,” all of which he calls “excursions into the dark side of the classical music world.”
Aficionados of classical music may notice that the titles of Elias’s novels have a familiar ring. Indeed, each one is named after a piece of music.
Elias, who is spending this summer performing with the BSO at Tanglewood, as he has every year since 1975, will read from his latest novel at Stellina next Wednesday at 6 p.m. as part of the Watertown restaurant’s weekly “Author’s Night” series.
Elias concedes that his earlier idea of an instruction manual for violinists has more or less been sacrificed to the pursuit of murder mysteries, but he sees his approach within a greater context of novelists setting mysteries in very specific locales.
“Walter Moseley writes about the post-World War II black neighborhoods of L.A.; Dick Francis writes about the world of horse racing in England,” Elias said. “They create their own little world based on what they know, but it has intrigue to a greater audience.”
The same seems to be true of his books, Elias says; his colleagues in the music world read them, but so do enough other readers to satisfy his publisher.
One of the challenges Elias faces when he writes is how to describe the music.
“There are a lot of hackneyed clichés out there about the power of music, and different descriptions of its beauty, but to really try to get the reader to understand the music was a challenge, and required me to start listening to it in a new, very careful way,” he said.
“The other great challenge was that I decided my protagonist, Daniel Jacobus, would be not only a cantankerous violinist disenchanted with the world of classical music but also blind.”
So Elias labors to narrate from the perspective of a person who cannot see. “I just put myself in Jacobus’s shoes and think about what he would be perceiving. He has to use his nose and ears and always be thinking,” said Elias.
Sometimes Elias does practical exercises for his fiction as well, such as traveling to Manhattan to count the number of steps from one block to the next, information he imagines his vision-impaired protagonist would rely on.
Being both a musician and writer requires what Elias calls a juggling act. How he prioritizes his time is largely dictated by his calendar, he says. An upcoming performance requires him to shift his focus to preparing for the concert; if he is facing a publisher’s deadline, he spends more time at his writing desk.
In general, though, he finds that one arena of creativity feeds off the other.
“Sometimes I get the best ideas for my novels while I’m playing my violin or driving to a rehearsal. Then I just try to jot down a few notes and hold on to them until I have a few hours to fill them out in more detail.”
His colleagues are supportive of his writing, Elias said, particularly those at Tanglewood, since the publication dates of his first three novels fell while he was in residence there, and his protagonist lives in the Berkshires, with a lot of the action in his books taking place at Tanglewood.
Published this spring, “Death and Transfiguration’’ is about a tyrannical old-school conductor who fled Czechoslovakia for America during the political turmoil in Eastern Europe in 1956. When the acting concertmaster approaches Daniel Jacobus for help combating the conductor’s harassment, he investigates the conductor’s dark past in Prague, Tokyo, and New York.
The Boston Globe, July 12, 2012
© 2012 NY Times Co.

June 2012 Library Journal - STARRED REVIEW

Reclusive, blind violin instructor Daniel Jacobus becomes curious about a prestigious symphony’s internal strife when comments against the talented but maniacal conductor, Vaclav Herza, reach a divisive level. Sherry O’Brien, the acting concertmaster, has come to Daniel for advice because she fears that Herza’s harassment of her means he won’t appoint her to a deserved permanent position. But Daniel basically blows her off. A few days later, Sherry is in the hospital with slashed wrists, close to death. Daniel comes to his senses and mobilizes his team of friends—Nathaniel, Max, and Martin—to dig into Herza’s past. Working round the clock in Prague, Tokyo, and New York, each man unearths dark secrets that clearly demonstrate Herza has killed before. Daniel knows this conductor must be brought to justice.

VERDICT Elegantly structured to match the Richard Strauss piece from which the title comes, Elias’s fourth title (after Death and the Maiden) in his highly regarded series deserves a standing ovation. Think Donna Leon for pacing and thoughtfulness and Deborah Grabien for music’s integral role in the plot.
Library Journal Reviews
Elias, Gerald. Minotaur, St. Martin’s. Jun. 2012. c.336p. ISBN 9780312678357. $26.99

June 2012 Publishers Weekly - STARRED REVIEW

Near the start of Elias’s finely tuned, wickedly funny fourth mystery featuring crotchety blind violinist Daniel Jacobus (after 2011’s Death and the Maiden), 41-year-old violinist Sherry O’Brien asks for his help with her audition for concertmaster of the prestigious Harmonium Orchestra. Jacobus, cantankerous as usual, brushes her off. When Sherry kills herself after confronting the orchestra’s notoriously egotistical and caustic director, Vaclac Herza, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia 40 years earlier, Jacobus enlists the aid of his sighted friends to probe into Herza’s past, long rumored to be unsavory. Memorable and shocking encounters in Prague and Tokyo alternate with pungent scenes of rancorous contract negotiations, nail-biting auditions, and the clash of wills between conductor and players, all on the eve of the orchestra’s inauguration of their new concert hall built on landfill off the southern tip of Manhattan. There’s just one word for this book: bravo!
Elias, Gerald. Minotaur, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-312-67835-7

June 2012 Salt Lake Tribune

Violinist Gerald Elias reaches the ‘fourth movement’ of acclaimed ‘Jacobus Mystery’ series
Books » Former Utah Symphony violinist writes honest fiction about the music world in his new book, “Death and Transfiguration.”
By Ben Fulton | The Salt Lake Tribune | June 21, 2012
Gerald Elias, former associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, received two pieces of advice about getting his book published. One camp told him he’d never find a publisher without an agent. The other told him he’d never find an agent without first securing a publisher.
As a violinist, Elias did what came naturally. He played it by ear. Today, in some circles, his character of the blind, cantankerous violinist and sleuth Daniel Jacobus is a household name, thanks to Devil’s Trill in 2009, followed by Danse Macabre, Death and the Maiden and, new this month, Death and Transfiguration.
As music director of Vivaldi by Candlelight since 2004, Elias remains active in his first love of classical music. It’s just that now, after growing up reading his siblings Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery novels, he’s that lucky person who lives to see two great loves merge.
Each of his four books is modeled after a musical form, but with every passing book Jacobus’ vision seems to grow more dark and bitter. In the new book, Jacobus delves deep into the past of "tyrannical" Czech conductor Vaclav Herza while helping gifted violinist Scheherazade "Sherry" O’Brien audition for a big-time orchestra position. History, responsibility and, of course, mystery all interplay in a taut narrative flavored with the drama and competition of the classical music world, the literary subject matter Elias knows firsthand.
A year after retiring from the symphony, Elias answered questions about his book between playing musical selections (see video clips) that add context to the story of Death and Transfiguration.
Reading your description of professional symphony life on page 15 of your new book, it’s hard not to conclude it’s at least a composite of your own feelings toward the music world. Do you have anything to confess?

In the end, this book is a traditional whodunit. It’s also an exposé of what things are really like in symphony orchestras. It’s not all peaches and cream, as audiences think when they go to a concert. There are all sorts of relationships that create tension. Sometimes it’s positive tension. It has to do with relationships between musicians and music director, music direction and the board. All these relationships are necessary for the functioning of the organization, but more often than not they’re strained.
It was that strain over the course of the years, which was why I retired when I did. Having played in symphony orchestras for almost 35 years, it just wasn’t for me at that point. Which, coincidentally, was when they hired Maestro [Thierry] Fischer. I’m happy to hear what he’s done with the orchestra. So, in that sense, I kind of regret retiring when I did. But I did all to the best of my ability and it was time to move on.
Was part of your impulse to write novels driven by a personal thirst for creative autonomy?

Absolutely. One thing about playing in an orchestra, you have to interact with 90 other musicians on a very refined, intricate level. At the same time, all that is subservient to what the conductor’s telling you to do. Then there’s the pragmatic aspect of making a living at the job. There are a lot of stresses and strains of that job. [Working] as an author has its own stresses, but I’m pretty much my own boss. I can write what I want. My timetable is my own pleasure. It’s on par with playing music on my own, which I also do these days.
People make a lot of comparisons between music and writing fiction. Do you find the comparison valid?

Yes, there’s a connection. On the other hand, with contemporary music the vocabulary is so open there’s no common language. It could be tonal, completely atonal, acoustic, synthesized. There are all kinds of language for contemporary music. But if you’re writing a book and there’s a word that has the wrong meaning, or a sentence with incorrect syntax, the reader knows immediately there’s a mistake. With music, almost anything goes.
Where did you get the inspiration for a blind violin player?

I made him blind for two reasons. Both overlap. One is that, most people know that if someone loses one of their senses they make up for that loss by having their other senses enhanced. That’s certainly the case with Jacobus. His sense of hearing became that much more acute, so he can perceive things that other normal humans cannot. That leads to my second reason. On a more metaphorical level, one of the reasons he turned his back on the classical music world was that it was being co-opted by money and shortcuts. So he’s able to perceive the music directly just by using his ears, rather than by how most people perceive it as visual. This ability to perceive things directly is also what makes him such a unique sleuth.
The way you describe Herza the conductor, and how he lives his life, was very lavish. Is that altogether representative of how famous conductors live?

I can’t say for sure. But when you see how they’re treated onstage, you can see how they’re treated on a different level. I remember working with Leonard Bernstein, whom I consider a first-rate genius, when I was in the Boston Symphony. He had an entourage that would make a rock star envious.
Many people see classical music as an edifying, soul-enriching alternative to pop and rock music, when really, as you point out, it’s just as backbiting and full of reprehensible behavior.

It’s eye-opening, and it’s ironic, because the music, in my opinion, is among the greatest achievements of Western civilization. It does invoke the most spiritual feelings within us. But the people that play it, conduct it and, most ironically, the people who compose the music are just human like everyone else. Maybe that’s great, it tells us that sometimes people are so socially inept the only way they can communicate their true feelings for the world is through their art. Deep down inside there’s a rich sense of humanity in [composers and musicians], but you have to go through so many layers of crap to get to that. That’s one of the things that make Jacobus such a complex character.
Jacobus, giving advice to a violin student, says: "You have to stay focused entirely on the present, so if you make an error, put it out of your mind and just play as beautifully as you know how." That would be great advice for a large part of life. After 35 years in the profession, do you feel music still has deeper lessons to teach?

Devil’s Trill took 10 years to write. A lot of people said, "Boy, you have great patience. How could you be so patient?" I’m a musician. There are works I practiced as a teenager that I still practice today as an adult, such as Bach’s sonatas and partitas. So does music still have something to teach? By all means. Any time I play something by Mozart or Schubert, there’s some aspect waiting to be discovered that I’d never noticed before.
One of the reasons I felt it was time to leave [the Utah Symphony] was that the sense of renewal I felt playing a Beethoven or Brahms symphony was no longer there. I didn’t want to take the music for granted. It was a sign that it was time for me to hand the position to a younger, enthusiastic and energetic musician. I can’t be more pleased in that decision because they now have a wonderful associate concertmaster in Kathryn Eberle.

May 2012Booklist - STARRED REVIEW

The title, from Richard Strauss’ tone poem for orchestra, brilliantly fits Elias’ latest mystery, in which the musician Daniel Jacobus confronts the wreckage of his own life as well as that of a talented young violinist. Jacobus has been sidelined from his career as a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for decades, ever since he was stricken with sudden blindness on the very day he won the concertmaster position. He is unrelentingly and refreshingly acerbic, living in a dust-laden house in the Berkshires, only occasionally giving lessons to truly gifted violinists, to whom he imparts hard-won knowledge about the treacheries endemic to the professional music world. Author Elias, a violinist himself, is the perfect guide through this underworld: the scenes of auditions and rehearsals have a tension only someone in the know could bring to them, and his criticism of how orchestras transform “thoroughbred” musicians into “packhorses” rings with authenticity. The latest Jacobus mystery centers on a brilliant young woman who slits her wrists, formally ending her career, after a series of humiliating encounters with a sociopathic conductor. This woman had sought Jacobus’ help with a harassment suit, asking him to investigate the conductor’s background. Jacobus’ refusal, and his subsequent guilt over the woman’s self-inflicted injury, propels him into an exploration of the conductor’s past. Brilliant and captivating on every level.
— Connie Fletcher.
Elias, Gerald. Death and Transfiguration. Minotaur, Jun 2012. 320 p. hardcover, ISBN 9780312678357. $26.99