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The Smoking Brisket Conspiracy

In honor of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which starts today, I’m posting this article I wrote for Berkshire Fine Arts magazine a few years ago. Among the traditional recipes for the Passover Seder, perhaps the most beloved is brisket. But if someone tries to tell you they’ve got the perfect recipe, beware!

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In case you were wondering.

Go ahead, call me a conspiracy theorist, but don’t you occasionally have this sneaking suspicion that our lives are being subtly manipulated by evil, highly sophisticated marketing genies, converting us from presumably sentient beings into veritable retail slaves?  Does that sound extreme?  More than a modest dose of healthy cynicism?  Here’s a recent case in point.  You decide.

A slew of family members recently descended upon our Berkshire home for a weekend visit and I wanted to cook something out on the deck that would satiate a slew with varying tastes.  A smoked brisket sounded like just the ticket.  As one of the “in” foods of the decade, what better entrée to trot out to the fam?  Southern style smoke houses have been multiplying faster than boll weevils.  Swarms of suburbanites have been spotted migrating to big box stores to purchase ever more impressively-equipped contraptions to keep up with, or if at all possible to out-smoke, the Joneses. (Remember back in the ‘70s when everyone had to have a hibachi?  Where have they all gone, I ask you?)

When I looked up smoked brisket recipes online is when I felt the first shiver of a qualm of an inkling that I was being subliminably manipulated.  Half the recipes trumpeted something to the effect that under no conditions can one properly smoke a brisket without a super-duper, hoopdiedoo smoker outfit.   Now, I personally happen to be the proud owner of a certified, vintage El Cheapo gas grill that after all these years has yet to explode on me, and I wasn’t prepared to run out and spend hundreds of dollars to cook a slab of meat, so I didn’t bother to go further with those particular recipes.  The problem was, even those that didn’t mandate a state-of-the-art gizmo listed more ingredients than the number of times House Republicans have tried to repeal Obamacare, and recommended advanced degrees in culinary history and meteorology, not to mention alchemy.  For example, they demanded I come to terms with a quasi-mystical concoction referred to as The Rub, which required minute fractions of teaspoons of various rare and exotic products that can be obtained only in Timbuktu on market day, and we all know how expensive it is to get a good flight/hotel package there these days.  Then, assuming The Rub was successfully conjured, there followed The Sauce, a potion involving yet more esoteric components.  Where, I ask you, does one find 3-year aged persimmon vinegar?  (A slight exaggeration for dramatic purposes.)

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 9.46.51 AMIn the end I threw caution and my computer to the wind, and decided to wing it!  I determined to smoke my brisket without any recipe whatsoever on my El Cheapo…and I lived to tell the tale!  In fact, some said it was the best brisket they had ever eaten.   What’s more, it’s a foolproof recipe that can be prepared successfully even by the proverbial dolt who can’t boil water, because for the most part it doesn’t matter what you do!   Take that, marketing-retail complex!

There are only two things you need to make a great smoked brisket: 1) a brisket, and 2) smoke.  Everything else is optional and variable, including, for that matter, the smoke.   For example, to simulate The Rub I rummaged around my kitchen cabinet and discovered a small container of something called Montreal Steak Seasoning tucked behind the Cheerios.  How and when it got into my cupboard, and what exactly Montreal Steak Seasoning is, I didn’t know; regardless, I suspected it might be a good find.  Montreal is, after all, in southern Canada, I reasoned.  I also found Chili Powder and Ground Mustard, both of which had colors that pleased me.  I stirred up arbitrary amounts of the three ingredients in a bowl, poured them onto the meat and rubbed it in with fervor.  My guess is, other than salt and pepper, you don’t need any seasonings whatsoever to make a blue ribbon brisket, but I have to say rubbing it in felt great, so I recommend it.

Some of the online recipes stated in no uncertain terms it’s essential to let the massaged brisket sit in the fridge overnight wrapped in foil in order to absorb the flavors.  Keep in mind, if you decide you seriously want to take this step, you may have to first purchase a larger refrigerator.   On the other hand, it wouldn’t do to let the meat sit out overnight as it might attract some family members you hadn’t invited.  After weighing the pluses and minuses, I disregarded this instruction because it doesn’t make a difference.  So either put it in the fridge or on the barbecue, whichever moves you.

Next, making smoke.  Go to your supermarket and get whatever barbecue wood chips or pellets they have on the shelf.  If there’s more than one variety, get the cheapest.  Some recipes say to use mesquite, others hickory.  Fancy-asses like apple or myrtle wood, but it makes no difference what kind you get.  It’s all fine.  Just follow the instructions on the bag…or not.  Some say to soak the chips for 1½ millennia, but you probably don’t need to soak them at all.  If the store is totally out of wood chips, don’t worry, because you don’t really need them, period; but if it’s fun for you to make smoke and it makes you feel like you’re doing something “authentic,” I say go for it.

Here’s the one and only important thing you have to do.  You have to cook the brisket really, really slowly; otherwise it will be as tough as three-week-old road-kill goat.  So what I did on my 2-burner El Cheapo is this: I turned on the left burner to the lowest setting and put the smoking packet on the grill above the flame.   Then I set the meat on the unlit right grill, closed the cover, waited about eight hours, and voila!  (Eight hours is merely an estimate.  If by accident you step on your watch, or the brisket changes time zones, don’t worry; an extra hour or two will only make it more tender.)  Chances are you can also bake a brisket in the kitchen oven on the lowest setting and it will do just fine, but if it makes you feel manly doing it on a grill, then do it on the grill.  Also, if you enjoy poking and prodding every so often like I do, it’s easier to do on the grill than in the kitchen…unless it’s raining.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention about The Sauce, probably because like everything else, you really don’t need it.  But if you want barbecue sauce, anything you find on the supermarket shelf will taste just about as good as something that takes three hours of messy anxiety to prepare, and if it makes your life feel more meaningful to brush it on the meat about an hour before it’s done, who’s to stop you?  Or you can just pour it on when it’s all done.  Just as good.

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I leave you with this final thought.  I believe there are powerful invisible forces at work here: forces that would try to convince you that for a good brisket, 1) you need to go to a “real” Texas or Kansas City or North Carolina barbecue restaurant where you have to stand in a long line to pay top dollar for two slices of meat (and up to two sides, excluding fried okra which is extra) “traditionally” served on a paper plate with a roll of paper towels for napkins and where you sit at a Formica table on which your forearm sticks to the surface; or 2) you have to make a financial choice between sending your kids to college or buying a smoker that you’ll end up using once every ten years.  If you resist buying the “right” ingredients or the “right” merchandise, these unseen forces make you feel queasily less than adequate, less American even.  To that I say: Rise up and buck the system!  My recipe-free brisket could well be the first step in freeing yourself and your hard-earned cash from the insidious marketer’s vicious cycle.  Ignore this advice at your peril though, because once you succumb to the smoker, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll nail you with the outdoor wood-fired pizza oven.

That’s about all she wrote, but if you end up forgetting any of the details I’ve painstakingly provided, don’t worry.  It doesn’t matter. Happy Passover.


Enjoy Devil’s Trill: The Audio Book, a unique listening experience: Download Here!



Violins of Hope

My violin was made four years before the inauguration of President…George Washington. In 1785. The maker was Joseph Gagliano, a famous Neapolitan luthier. That’s about all I know for sure about my violin. I don’t even know who owned before me, let alone who its other owners were.

Can you imagine what stories my violin could tell if it could talk? I don’t just mean about the major events in history it witnessed over the past 232 years. I mean whose kitchen table it sat on, whose house it was in the first time it experienced an electric light, whose trunk it sat in while it made its way, whether by ship or by plane, across the Atlantic. My violin might have been onstage for the premier of Beethoven’s Fifth or in the pit for Show Boat. Or it could have sat in a violin shop for a hundred years, though I doubt that.

There are a few intriguing clues about my violin’s professional life.IMG_4040

You see that red stuff on the back of my scroll? No, it’s not 18th century chewing gum. It’s a wax stamp that says “Republique Francaise.” That most likely indicates (according to the experts) that it was in a museum exhibit in France. But it could also be a customs stamp, or even indicating that it was confiscated by the French Republic during the revolution. In any event it appears to have been highly regarded for one reason or another for a long time.

What’s more interesting to me, though, is this:

IMG_4041 Do you notice all that wear and tear along the top of the right side of the scroll? I really like that. Because what it means to me is that someone owned this violin for a very long time. And even more, used it for a very long time. So it was likely in professional hands, or at least someone who loved to play this violin. I think the reason for the wear is the result of the case it was in. If you’ve ever seen 19th century violin cases, they basically look like little black coffins, and many of them were handmade with no padding in the interior. So if the case was a bit asymmetrical, every time the owner put the violin away it would rub against the scroll, giving it a good chance the violin would have worn like that. That means the violinist not only had a long career, (s)he never made a helluva lot of money because (s)he could never afford a decent case. So not much has changed.

There is a unique collection of violins whose history we know, however. They’re not necessarily all good violins, but they have a powerful story to tell. These violins were owned by Jews, many of whom perished, who were concentration camp prisoners during World War II. Over the decades after the War, one by one they were brought to a violin maker in Israel named Moshe Weinstein, who repaired the instruments at no cost because he felt these violins had a story that must be told: the story of hope. To many in the camps, the only thing that enabled them to retain the will to live was the sound of the violin. For that reason, this collection is referred to as Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust.

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The Violins of Hope have traveled around the world as an inspiring educational tool. A few years ago the Cleveland Orchestra played a concert on these instruments at a major synagogue/arts center in Cleveland, which is a story in itself. The result of all this is the extraordinary documentary, Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust.

Why is this important?

I was born just seven years after the end of World War II. Seven years! That’s nothing. We remember what we ate at restaurants seven years ago. Yet when I was a kid it was as if World War II was ancient history. Even though I was from a Jewish family. Even though my father fought in France at the end of the war.

You may say, well, I was only a kid. But I do have an older brother and sister, and though we sat around the dinner table everyday we never talked about the horrors of war. Yes, once in a while we could prod my father to tell a war story, but it was always just a little vignette: picking sour apples in an orchard, bumping into someone he knew from New York City in the muddy trench next to him. We watched World War II movies on the television together. But is was basically for entertainment value: the Good Guys against the Bad Guys. Cowboys and Indians. Cops and Robbers.

Now we might think, what a mistake it was not to talk about the lessons of the war. But how does one wrap ones head around the 6,000,000 Jews who were murdered. And the Catholics, and the homosexuals, and the Romani, and the communists. The 20,000,000 Russians who died. Twenty-million! The millions of Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans who died. And of course, all the Americans. How do you deal with that? Block out the past and to look only toward the rosy future. After all, we had won. Nazism had lost, and antisemitism would never again rear its ugly head. At that time, that way of thinking wasn’t only understandable. It was almost necessary.

But history does not stop. History plods on, with or without us, and as Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously stated, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change the more they stay the same. Look around us. Rarely has the story of the Violins of Hope been more important than now.

Violins of Hope enables us to comprehend the horror of the Holocaust because by hearing the story of each of these violins we see humanity as a collection of thinking and feeling individuals, not merely numbers with too many zeroes after them. Urbanites, country folk, scholars, peasants, bankers, garbage men, scientists, carpenters. They composed, played, and listened to music from symphonies in the concert hall to Klezmer in the shtetl. Please watch this one-hour documentary: Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust. It is a story you’ll never forget.


Swan Songs


The Maiden: Stay away! Oh, stay away! Go, fierce Death! I am still young, please go! And do not touch me.

Death: Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender vision! I am a friend, and come not to hurt you. Be of good cheer! I am not cruel. You will sleep softly in my arms!

(Poem by Matthias Claudius. Music by Franz Schubert)


It’s the big question, isn’t it? How we will respond when the Grim Reaper crosses our threshold and reaches out with his icy hand. I’ll be discussing that very question on the preconcert lecture of the Minetti String Quartet’s performance on March 1 of an intriguing program comprising the final quartets by Mozart and Mendelssohn, and Schubert’s monumental “Death and the Maiden.” (I had always thought that was among Schubert’s final works, but more recent scholarships suggests he composed it a few years before his demise at the age of thirty-one.)


Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. Few people know the hour of their demise in advance, and certainly Mozart still had some time to go after his Quartet in B-flat, K589. And, there’s something strange contemplating the swan songs of these three genius composers when none of them made it to the age of thirty-nine. Yet, when writing these quartets they were in fairly dire physical, emotional, (and always for Mozart,financial) straits, and thoughts of death must have crossed their mind even at their tender ages. Composers have often resorted to chamber music in their final days, either finding comfort in the intimacy of the genre or perhaps, as in Beethoven’s last quartets, disregarding convention for another spiritual realm entirely. What’s curious in this program is that neither Mendelssohn nor Mozart seem to have chosen those options.

What’s strikingly in common among the three compositions of this program is the strict adherence to what by that time had become traditional four movement quartet form; and further, within those movements, the absence of anything structurally innovative (again, unlike Beethoven). The first movements are conventional sonata-allegro form. The minuets (or scherzos) and the slow movements are all totally by the book.


Mozart’s death mask

What’s of much more interest to the composers is the content, using standard form as the structurally sturdy, architectural frame for their creativity. The texture of Mozart’s K589 is unusually light and spare; more often than not only two or three musicians are playing. It’s almost as if he’s saying he could no longer care less about conventional frippery. He’s not out to please audiences as much as satisfying his own personal standards; to write what’s essential–nothing more, nothing less–and if you don’t like it, well that’s just too bad. (That being said, he did include an extended cello solo in the Larghetto, probably in the hopes–unfulfilled–of obtaining a commission from Frederick Wilhelm II, an enthusiastic amateur cellist.) One particularly noteworthy feature of this quartet is the Trio section of the Minuet. Usually given scant attention by composers, this Trio section takes on a life of its own–it’s almost a mini-Magic Flute.


Mendelssohn’s death mask


If there was a greater child genius than Mozart, it was Felix Mendelssohn. By his mid-teens he had a consummate grasp of his craft and had already produced masterpieces like the Octet and some of the Incidental Music to A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  In a way, that early technical precocity may have led to some stagnation as a creative artist in later compositions, where at times he seemed to repeatedly tread over trails he had already blazed. It reminds me of a quote by Berlioz’s comment about the young Camille Saint-Saens, another child genius. “He knows everything, but suffers from a lack of inexperience.”

Just before the F Minor Quartet, Mendelssohn’s beloved sister, Fanny, died suddenly and unexpectedly, and was himself was exhausted and in very poor health. He made no secret that the quartet was an expression of his grief and anguish. The intensity of F Minor, the jagged and accented dynamics, the turbulent under layers of 16th notes, the syncopated rhythms, the melodies which start and then seem to disintegrate, are all testament to his inner turmoil. Yet for all that, Mendelssohn seems unable to break free of the craft. The deeper tragedy here may be that in this, his final effort to make his most personal statement, he was constrained by the very gifts that had propelled him to greatness.


Schubert’s death mask


Schubert’s song, “Death and the Maiden,” upon which the quartet is based, is less than three minutes long. In the quartet, Death grabs you around the throat for the better part of an hour and rarely loosens his grip. For it to be an appropriately convincing performance, the musicians and audience have to be physically and emotionally exhausted by the end. The emotional core of the quartet is the second movement Andante con moto, a set of variations taken from the  introduction and second stanza of the song, a chillingly stately  cortege. The variations go far beyond the typical technique of simply providing contrasts in color, texture, and ornamentation of the theme. Here, each variation examines a different response to Death’s arrival, plumbing the depths of the soul in musical tones. And, like in the song, there is no definite resolution. Is Death cruel or is he, as he insists, here to comfort? We can guess, but we don’t ever know for sure how the Maiden–or Mozart or Mendelssohn for that matter–responds to Death’s invitation.

PS I’ve written a novel inspired by “Death and the Maiden.” Coincidentally, it’s called “Death and the Maiden.” For all my other books and audio books, please visit my Writing page.


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


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:

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


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

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

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: 
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”

I hope you’ll enjoy this sample of music & reading from Devil’s Trill: Audio Teaser
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: 
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! “
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!

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