SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Symphony associate concertmaster — who spent a number of years as a violinist with the Boston Symphony — and current University of Utah School of Music adjunct professor Gerald Elias is not content to hone just one artistic talent. After years of playing music, Elias now also writes about music, most often in the form of musical mystery novels. But recently, he's dipped into the world of nonfiction to write about his two tours to China with the Boston Symphony — once in 1979 and again in 2014 — in his new book "Symphonies and Scorpions."
Three years before the 1979 tour, China's Cultural Revolution ended with the death of Chairman Mao Zedong, and the country was starting to open, tentatively, to the Western world. While Boston was not the first American symphony to play in China (the Philadelphia Orchestra toured there in 1973), it was the first to play in the post-Zedong years. Lead by Seiji Ozawa, a Japan native, the Boston Symphony, including Elias, spent a week giving concerts and master classes to Chinese audiences and musicians.
But oddly, it was the 2014 tour that almost didn't happen. The original conductor, Lorin Maazel, dropped out at the last second for health reasons and the tour was nearly cancelled. Thankfully for the musicians and staff that had put so much work into the tour, Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit stepped in and they went as planned.
But things didn't get easier, as the Japanese customs almost didn't let the musicians' instruments through — but that issue too resolved itself in the end and the Boston Symphony performed to audiences in Asia that paid upwards of $300 a ticket to see them.
Elias talks about these little dramas and the everyday struggles of a professional classical musician on tour in his book, sharing the highlights of his career and what he's learned along the way. The Deseret News recently spoke with the musician and author about his experiences and how he got into writing in the first place.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Deseret News: What would you say was the biggest difference between touring China in 1979 and 2014?
Gerald Elias: I would say the biggest difference is that the tour in 2014 was an artistic endeavor, bringing the great music of Europe performed by this great orchestra, the Boston Symphony, to a very appreciative audience, a music-loving audience. On that level it was wonderful, just an absolute success.
The tour in ′79 was that plus the global ramifications of this cultural contact between America and China. It really was a profound moment. Looking back — we're almost 40 years removed from it — it's hard to really perceive how palpable that was. (Richard) Nixon had been president and opened up the door to China, which was a major accomplishment, but then there was the Cultural Revolution, which almost set things back in reverse. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the big question was, "What's next?" That Boston Symphony tour answered that question, filled that gap and stimulated the whole detente between China and the U.S., so it really was a historically crucial moment in time. To be a part of that and to perform a concert with musicians of the Beijing Symphony was just an emotional high for everybody.
DN: Do you think there's a different or greater appreciation for classical music in Asia?
GE: I don't know if it's greater. I know that it's different because here classical music has been a focal point of cultural life for 150 years. In Asia it's more recent. As a result, (the appreciation) is perhaps more intense there now. I would say that (Asia's) enthusiasm for classical music at this point might be more focused than ours. Here, when you go to see symphony orchestras now, there are so many Asian musicians who have come here (to the United States). One of the reasons they come here is that we have a more deeply engrained appreciation of classical music, so there are more fine orchestras here. It gives me a great hope for the future of classical music to see the excitement in Asia, whether it's China, Korea or Japan.
DN: What would you say is your favorite part about touring as a musician?
GE: I would say my favorite part is connecting with people wherever we happen to be touring. … Wherever I go as a musician, getting to know the people in those places has been the most meaningful outcome, whether it's other musicians … or audience members who just want to meet the musicians and get some insight, or even people like waiters at restaurants who communicate through the food they serve. I think that kind of connection … is really the most important thing and the most meaningful thing that I feel I accomplish when I travel.
DN: How did you decide to write "Symphonies and Scorpions"?
GE: One of the hardest things to figure out was what format it should be, whether it should be more of an academic book about the nuts and bolts of symphony orchestras, or whether it should be a memoir or a travel log. I toyed around with it for a long time and finally decided it should be more lighthearted so that people who don't know much about the profession could really be entertained while they were reading about these things that they might not have known about before. I included a lot of anecdotes, not only about the tour but about life in general in symphony orchestras and some of the experiences I've had over the years.
DN: What got you into writing mystery novels?Comment on this story
GE: I've found out over the years that violin students around the world are confronted with similar challenges — not just how to play the violin but how to plan a career, how to prepare for auditions, how to find the right violin, things like that. So about 20 years ago, I decided I would write a book primarily for aspiring violin students about those very issues. But I also decided because I grew up reading and really enjoying mysteries that I would spice up that book so that it didn't bore everyone to death, by just weaving a storyline around that. The story was about a stolen Stradivarius (violin) and it took 10 years from the original draft until it was finally published. … It really morphed into a traditional whodunit within the world of classical music and that was my first mystery called "Devil's Trill."
I've also had some short stories published that are Westerns and currently I'm working on a Western novel because not only do I love music, but since moving to Utah 30 years ago, I've fallen in love with Utah wilderness and outdoors, so I'm expanding my literary horizons.