Quality Expanded

Below is a fantastic response I got to my post, “A Case for Quality,” by bassist Rick Robinson. Rick has spent years working on ways to extend classical music to a broader audience without compromising quality or integrity. I recommend you visit his organization’s website, Cut Time Productions

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This is what he wrote to me after reading my blog post:

Hi Gerry, this is really great writing. As one who enjoyed a 22-year tenure in the Detroit Symphony (after subbing a year in BSO), I am in total sympathy with this widely-held perspective. However, I’ve learned that there are always other viewpoints, and that many can and DO disagree with us. It might do well for the industry in the long term to find the balance of services that PRESERVE the perfected tradition and services that ADAPT classical to form a bridge for the curious people who are not likely to jump into Symphony Hall without guidance.

The saying goes, when you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The music we play is wonderful, unique, dramatic, cathartic, and classical in the sense of aesthetic architecture. For us, it may seem fine if no new people ever came to our concerts. If the Viennese have mixed-aged audiences, then surely Boston will eventually. But we must also admit what classical music SEEMS like to those we would like and NEED to eventually come to concerts: long, boring, anachronistic & foreign (to name a few). The questions become; Well what about them? Don’t they deserve to know what they’re missing? Don’t we need 2% of the wider public to attend? Don’t we need the vocal blessing of HALF of the wider public to keep receiving public funding? It may not seem so from the inside, but how often do we step outside our arts bubbles to inquire or just listen? Your Symphony 101 program still speaks to the choir.

It will take more than Piazzolla to waken outsiders to the practical benefits of the symphony. As fun as that is for new audience, it doesn’t model develop like Tchaik or Dvorak. I began playing actual symphonic movements in restaurants, bars and clubs in 2010 as part of the worldwide Classical Revolution movement. (There’s a fledgling chapter called Classical Revolution New England on Facebook.) Anticipating that classical and symphonic music would eventually need to work here, if only to balance the “churchlike” tradition that maximizes the potential impact of the music, since 1994 I had begun transcribing lively, famous works for two ensembles of 4-8 musicians. Peter and the Wolf, symphonic dances and mvmts of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Still, Ellington and many more. I even began composing romantic works that blend in the folk music of OUR time (rock, blues, funk, gospel, Latin, bluegrass, hip-hop) to show what a universal expressive tool classical music can be; to show musicians and composers how to Americanize classical music for people expecting to see themselves reflected. We even add light drums in the fortes and let audience join in on eggshakers and other toy percussion.

So it IS possible to create effective BRIDGES across the huge gap: they cannot be perfect, but need to be adaptable by placing the new audience at the CENTER of the music. As musicians, we need to TRANSLATE the why and the how of classical music. Those with the decades of experience can probably find the best words, such as analogies, for instrumental music. Take heart that you can leave it to the next generations to do this extra sacrifice. But on the other hand, you might become proactive and blend those great writing (and speaking?) skills with humor and fun, to turn outsiders into marginal insiders. We CAN have it both ways.

 

Devil’s Trill: The Audio Book—with music performed by the author–is now available for pre-order! Buy it for yourself, give it as a gift, and even get it for FREE* through this link: http://tinyurl.com/jehpm8u

*with a one-month trial subscription at Audible – at no cost! ”

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World renowned violinist, Cho Liang Lin, wrote, ‘Reading Devil’s Trill was a nonstop page-turning pleasure. Now that the words are imbued with the author’s beautiful violin playing, this audio version will surely mesmerize.’

Produced by Alison Larkin Presents

A Case for Quality

The following essay is an expanded version I wrote for the Boston Symphony program book of a blog post I wrote last spring while on a European tour with the BSO. For a more darkly  entertaining perspective on the world of classical music, please consider “Devil’s Trill: The Audio Book.” Here’s an audio sample. See the end of this essay for details!

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-8-05-09-amAndris Nelsons and the BSO at the Musikverein in Vienna, May 9, 2016 (Marco Borggreve)

A Case for Quality
by Gerald Elias
Prompted by his experience on the BSO’s eight-city European tour last spring, former Boston
Symphony violinist Gerald Elias reflects on the enduring strengths of symphony concerts.

Last April I had the opportunity to perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the BSO at
Symphony Hall and on its spring European tour. The ninety-minute symphony is a challenge both for the musicians and audience. Its relentless intensity and extended tonality keep it always outside the edge of our aural comfort zone, especially compared to the facile lyricism of a Tchaikovsky or Dvorák. When the Symphony Hall performance ended and the musicians stood up to take our bows, I looked out into the audience. There usually is enough light in the hall to see the faces of concertgoers applauding, at least near
the stage. Their expressions are a good gauge of how much they enjoyed the concert.
What I saw was more than gratifying. Not only was it clear the performance had been
deeply appreciated, I was pleasantly surprised to see a fairly evenly balanced demographic
division of people in their twenties and thirties, forties and fifties, and sixties
and seventies. And it wasn’t just a fluke. It turned out to be the case time and time
again—in Vienna, in Leipzig, in Dresden, in Luxembourg—as well as at Symphony
Hall. I suppose I was surprised because there has been a drumbeat of naysayers who
prophesy the doom of symphony orchestras, telling us in somber tones that only rich,
old folks go to concerts these days. I’m sorry, but that’s not how I’ve seen things. Is
there a greater preponderance of older people attending symphony concerts than rock
concerts? No doubt. But no one seems to worry about Justin Bieber’s future simply
because his audience is severely limited to teeny-boppers. And to the notion that symphonies have priced themselves out of the entertainment market: going to a symphony concert is no more expensive than the average ticket for a Red Sox game, and a lot less than a box seat. So if you can afford to sit in the bleachers and polish off a Fenway frank and a Samuel Adams, you can afford the Boston Symphony.
A prevailing narrative, promulgated, amazingly enough, by some symphony orchestras’
own administrations (though fortunately not the BSO’s), runs like this: (A) Symphony
orchestras are in dire trouble. (B) The traditional symphonic format—the repertoire,
the two-hour concert, the white-tie-and-tails, the formidable concert hall—is no longer
relevant to contemporary society. (C) For the concert experience to be meaningful, and
therefore in order for orchestras to survive, it has to connect with a more diverse local
community and compete more actively in the entertainment arena. The proposed solution: Orchestras need to jettison the “standard” repertoire and create new formats in
less formal, more personalized settings that will attract a more contemporary crowd.
In other words, symphony orchestras should cool it with the symphonies. Otherwise,
we might as well pack our bags and go home.
I admit I’m exaggerating the argument, but not by much. Nevertheless, I find this narrative not only to be frightening, considering that the source of it is often the organization itself, but also flawed. First, I don’t see that orchestras are on the verge of extinction. On the contrary. People who make this argument are myopically fixated on only the top tier of professional symphony orchestras, and even in this regard it’s somewhat of a fiction.
There is no doubt that, as is the case with most nonprofits, raising money is a nonstop
challenge. When economic times are tough, orchestras struggle. (Yes, there are some
orchestras that continue to struggle regardless of the economy, and some have tragically

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Andris Nelsons and the BSO performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, May 5, 2016 (Gert Mothes)

shut their doors, but in general when times get better, orchestras rebound.) In other
words, they’re like any other business. We don’t write off the retail industry when Sears
hits the skids. Why would we do that with orchestras? And don’t forget that during
the supposed “golden age” of American symphony orchestras in the 1930s and ’40s,
when radio stations like NBC supported their own magnificent in-house orchestras
and even movie theaters had their own live musicians, there were comparatively few
orchestras that provided anything close to a year-round concert schedule and full-time
employment for the musicians, let alone health care and retirement benefits.
Going beyond fully professional orchestras, when you look how deeply embedded
the culture of symphonic music is in American society, including hundreds of semiprofessional, community, youth, college, festival, and school orchestras, a strong case can be made that symphony orchestras have never been healthier. The same week
that I played the Mahler with the Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall, I performed as a
soloist with the Long Island Youth Orchestra, which was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary!
The same week I played the Mahler at Tanglewood, I coached the string section
of the all-amateur Stockbridge Sinfonia for their well-attended annual concert. Going
beyond our own shores, the explosion of symphonic music in Asia and South America
over the past half-century has been nothing short of mind-boggling. Even if classical
music in the U.S. and Europe were suddenly to cease tomorrow, the future of orchestral
music would still shine brightly around the world.
And you know what music everyone’s playing? Mozart and Beethoven, Mahler and
Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Ravel. You know why? It’s
simple. They composed great music. Musicians love to play it and audiences love to
hear it. So far, no one has tired of gawking at the Mona Lisa or the statue of David. Why
should listening to Beethoven’s Fifth be any different? Should symphony orchestras

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Performing Mahler’s Ninth at the Philharmonie Luxembourg, May 12, 2016 (Sebastien Grebille)

program more music of contemporary, ethnically diverse composers? Absolutely! If it’s
worthy music, by all means. But it’s ass backwards if the motivation is out of fear that
otherwise symphony orchestras will die.
But what about the format? The presentation? What about those stuffy concert halls
where you have to sit quietly for two hours and not use your cell phones? Isn’t there
a better way to connect with the community? Outreach and education activities are
great, especially considering the dwindling funding of public school music education. The
more the better. But how can such activities “save the symphony” if at the same time
the raison d’être—playing symphonies—is devalued by the very organizations trying to
“save” it? What would the purpose be of such efforts? If a group of symphony musicians
playing Piazzolla tangos in a pub floats their boat, that’s great. That would be a lot of
fun. Go for it! Getting to know the musicians up close and personal is a wonderful way
for the public to connect. And maybe it would eventually attract some people to go to a real
symphony concert. (Personally, when I’m at a pub, I’d rather watch a ball game while I’m
drinking my Rolling Rock than listen to string quartets. But, hey, that’s just me.)
But here’s the problem. Outreach has its limits. It’s a challenge to play Tchaikovsky’s
Fifth Symphony in a bar. I’m not sure how you’d squeeze all those brass players in there.
Maybe behind the pool tables. At some point it comes back to concert halls. Symphony
orchestras have no choice but to play symphonies in concert halls. And you know
what? Some people think it’s very special to go to a concert hall. In fact, a lot of people
feel that way. It gives them a sense of being part of something unique and special.
Maybe that’s why they’ve kept coming for three hundred years. We are fortunate that
the Boston Symphony was founded upon that principle and has steadfastly maintained
it to this day.
In this day and age when we’re surrounded by external stimuli 24/7, when our world
view is reduced to a two-by-four-inch cell phone screen, when our computerized existence frames us into thinking and feeling and responding in nanoseconds, the appeal
of two hours in the comfort of an impressively expansive and comfortable concert
hall, listening to an engaging Rossini overture, a sublime Mozart piano concerto, and
a heartwarming Brahms symphony may actually be something that people are more
inclined to enjoy more now than ever before. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of
the death of the symphony orchestra have been greatly exaggerated.

Gerald Elias, formerly a BSO violinist and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony,
continues to perform with the BSO at Tanglewood and on tour. Currently music director of Vivaldi by Candlelight in Salt Lake City, he is also author of the award-winning Daniel Jacobus mystery series set in the dark corners of the classical music world.

For a darkly  entertaining perspective on the world of classical music, please consider “Devil’s Trill: The Audio Book.” Here’s an audio sample.

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Devil’s Trill, a Mystery in Sonata-Allegro form—with music performed by the author–is now available for pre-order! You can buy it for yourself, give it as a gift, and even get it for FREE* through this link: http://tinyurl.com/jehpm8u 
Devil’s Trill is the ­first-ever audiobook to integrate musical passages that provide clues to solving the mysteries. Author­ Gerald Elias, a renowned concert violinist, performs the music himself.
World renowned violinist, Cho Liang Lin, says: ‘Reading Devil’s Trill was a nonstop page-turning pleasure. Now that the words are imbued with the author’s beautiful violin playing, this audio version will surely mesmerize.
Produced by Alison Larkin Presents

Behind the scenes with “Devil’s Trill”

FIRST, HERE’S THE SCOOP:
I hope you’ll enjoy this sample of music & reading from Devil’s Trill: Audio Teaser
“PRE ORDER NOW: http://tinyurl.com/jehpm8u
Very exciting news! Devil’s Trill, a Mystery in Sonata-Allegro form—with music performed by the author–is now available for pre-order! You can buy it for yourself, give it as a gift, and even get it for FREE* through this link: http://tinyurl.com/jehpm8u 
Devil’s Trill is the ­first-ever audiobook to integrate musical passages that provide clues to solving the mysteries. Author­ Gerald Elias, a renowned concert violinist, performs the music himself.
World renowned violinist, Cho Liang Lin, says: ‘Reading Devil’s Trill was a nonstop page-turning pleasure. Now that the words are imbued with the author’s beautiful violin playing, this audio version will surely mesmerize.
*with a one-month trial subscription to Audible – at no cost! “
NOW, HERE’S THE BACKSTORY:
It all started so innocently. One soggy evening last August I gave a book reading for my recently released mystery, Playing With Fire, during which–as usual–I played some of the music that’s part of the story on my violin. After the reading I was schmoozing with the 30-odd folks who attended when I was approached by a very enthusiastic young lady. “Do you have the audio rights to your book?” she asked. My answer was yes, but only because my former publisher had recently been kind enough to return them to me. “Why do you ask?” I asked. “Because,” she said, “your novels should be in audio and if you included the music in them (as you just did at the reading) it would be incredible.” I responded by telling her–her name was Alison Larkin–that my agent and I had been trying for years to do just that, but the big audio companies seemed reluctant to want to adjust their tried-and-true template for audio book production. I wasn’t optimistic. Turns out, Alison informed me, she had recently started her own audio book company in neighboring Stockbridge, Alison Larkin Presents, which so far had been highly successful producing Dickens and Austen. (Alison, it turns out, is also an acclaimed author, comedienne, and audio book reader.) “Would you,” I asked, “be interested in producing Devil’s Trill?
One month later we had a deal. Then came my learning curve. First, Alison sent me samples of four of the best audio book readers in the business. (It seems audio aficionados follow their favorite readers, like movie stars. Who knew?) I easily chose one whom I thought would make the best Daniel Jacobus: Jim Frangione. And guess what? Jim lives in Housatonic, a mile from my house in West Stockbridge! To help Jim, because there are so many musical terms and weird names in my books, I wrote a pronunciation guide. Within a couple weeks, he had laid down the entire book on tape, pronouncing almost everything as if he were a professional musician, and the inflections of the characters’ voices were right on the money. I received a copy of the tape, made some suggestions for minor revisions and after a patch session with the recording engineer, Voila! We had an audio book.
But not quite! There was still the music component. I had to figure out which music, and how much of it would compliment the story without being a distraction. So while Jim was reading the book in the Berkshires, I practiced my butt off for a few weeks, and recorded the music in Utah: excerpts from Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata of course, plus some Paganini, Mendelssohn, Massenet, Paradis, Sarasate, and Bach.  And Elias! You see, there’s a fictional violinist/composer in Devil’s Trill by the name of Matteo Cherubino, aka Il Piccolino, because he was a little person. In the story, the sad Piccolino improvises a sarabanda for his lover. So I had to compose something which not only sounded early Italian Baroque, but was also seductive, sad, and improvised-sounding–and something I could play!
Now, here’s the great part. After I recorded the music, I went to the Berkshires, music audio files in hand, and sat down with Jason Brown, our recording engineer, and Alison. For the next four hours, utilizing the wonders of modern technology, we cut and pasted the music into Jim’s narrative with split-second (literally) accuracy, all the way debating the length of the musical cues, how long they should go on before returning to the reading, and how long they should continue underneath the text. What a thrill to work with an expert team! The result was–in my uninitiated mind–nothing short of miraculous. The music fits seamlessly into the story, as if it had always been that way. I don’t often get very excited by things, but I have to say this project has been something very, very special. I hope you’ll agree!
 
“PRE ORDER NOW: http://tinyurl.com/jehpm8u

William Grandstaff revisited

In a past blog I wrote about William Grandstaff, an African American post-Civil War cattle rancher who was run off his land in Moab, Utah in 1881. I’ve had a pair of compositions based upon what we know of his life performed by the Moab Music Festival.

After fleeing Moab, he spent much of the remainder of his life in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Will Grandbois, a reporter at the local paper there, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, has just written a very informative article about Grandstaff and his place in local history:

William Grandstaff Article

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The Black Mozart

In an effort to regain some equilibrium in the aftermath of our national election, I returned to a juicy project I’ve been working on, preparation for a concert I’m conducting with Sinfonia Salt Lake this coming May.

Originally, the program was supposed to include the music of three generations of the Mozart family: Leopold, the father; Wolfgang, of course; and Franz Xaver, the surprisingly gifted and underappreciated son whose music is hardly known but should be performed frequently.

For logistical reasons we had to change the program, including transferring from a piano soloist to a soprano, but I still wanted to do something equally innovative and with Mozart. Serendipitously  (if that’s a word), at about that time, one of my colleagues mentioned that there was a contemporary of Mozart whose name he couldn’t remember, but was referred to as “the Black Mozart,” and was well-known in his day. Sounded intriguing!

After some sleuthing, I not only found out who this composer was, I found some very fine recordings of his music, which is excellent. And a lot more:

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (December 25, 1745 – June 10, 1799) was a champion fencer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Born in Guadeloupe, he was the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter, and Nanon, his African slave. During the French Revolution, Saint-Georges was colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe, fighting on the side of the Republic. Today the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry. (Wikipedia)

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In the old days, it would have taken a great deal more research to actually obtain the sheet music. However, in the new day and age, I found some of his scores in a mere trice online. Not only spectacular violin concertos and symphonies, but also the score to his finest comic opera, L’amant Anonime. The opera has an excellent overture, instrumental numbers, and soprano arias that suit the needs of the Sinfonia Salt Lake program to a T. The only problem is the score is in handwritten manuscript (whose, I don’t know, and there are a million mistakes), and there are no orchestral parts.

So my project is to make the music concert-ready, transcribing the music into legible form. Though it’s extremely tedious and time-consuming, it’s a project that I savor, not only because I’ve discovered some beautiful music totally new to me, but also because as I work on it, I gain a deeper appreciation for the miraculous contributions made to our culture and history by people of color who have surmounted impossibly formidable obstacles.

I highly recommend you read more about Saint-Georges and listen to his music, and as you do so, to reflect upon what has made the culture of our own country so uniquely rich, and what we need to do to as a people to continue to foster that.

 

Civilization Reconsidered

I love Mozart. I love Shakespeare. I love Michelangelo. But do arts and literature define civilization, or is it how people treat each other? I just returned from a demonstration outside the Wells Fargo building in Salt Lake City. It was in support of the protesters at Standing Rock and against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Given the potential environmental and cultural desecration the pipeline could create alone raises valid questions as to why Wells Fargo would invest millions of dollars into that project, rather than funneling it into renewable energy. But for me an even greater issue is why law enforcement has been brutalizing peaceful, mostly Native American protesters. Why they have reportedly locked people of all ages and genders into dog kennels and have stamped numbers on their arms. Why they have used Mace, Tasers, rubber bullets, and attack dogs. Why they have done all this when an occupying force of armed, right-wing militias in Oregon was treated with kid gloves and has walked away free. Could it be that in our contemporary society, might actually does make right?

Right now, not only in this country, but around the world, it seems that the barbarity with which this continent was colonized a half millennium ago casts our ability to call ourselves “civilized” into serious question. Perhaps, at Standing Rock, if we can find it within ourselves to consider and implement those values that are truly important, that truly define civilization, maybe, maybe we will begin to turn a corner.

Protest at Standing Rock

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