By Stephen DanknerSpecial to iBerkshires Print | Email
Violinist/author Gerald Elias, associate concertmaster with the Utah Symphony and Boston Symphony violinist "in residence" at Tanglewood as a BSO violinist, is also a novelist. A graduate of Yale University, adjunct professor of music at the University of Utah, first violinist of the Abramyan String Quartet, and music director of the "Vivaldi By Candlelight" concert series, Elias is a busy man.
For all this, he finds the time and passion to dedicate himself to a completely different art form – and to, over the years, excel equally at that "secondary" activity.
Elias is a master storyteller/novelist, who has published six thrillers – all combining his love of music with a fabulously crafted fiction style to create an unusual, original and gripping series of mysteries. Each is centered on a wonderfully complex central character – a blind classical performer/mentor violinist – one Daniel Jacobus.
All Elias' novels have classical music themes, as can be deduced from their clever musical play-on-word titles: "Devil's Trill," "Danse Macabre," "Death and Transfiguration," "Death and the Maiden" and "Playing with Fire." Each is sub-titled "a Daniel Jacobus Mystery."
He has just published his sixth installment in the series, "Spring Break." The book, like each of the earlier volumes in the series, possesses writing with equal verve and narrative skill; the adventures of the curmudgeonly and semi-jaded violinist/detective, Daniel Jacobus, are as engaging as ever.
"Spring Break" is, like its predecessors, wonderfully and imaginatively conceived, written and plotted, and is a joy to read. Elias has both a musician's ear and a writer's knack for concise conversational patter and "groaner" puns, which creates a sense of immediacy that enabled this reader to feel like he was present in each scene in the novel. The action never flags; its fast pace and crisp dialog make this tale of murder and power a real page-turner.
The story, as described by the publisher's press release is, in brief, as follows:
"In violinist/mentor/amateur sleuth Daniel Jacobus we have an imaginative, ornery, reclusive, witty protagonist. The sixth in the Daniel Jacobus series finds the blind violin teacher taking a speaking engagement at a prestigious music conservatory that's hosting a symposium on Baroque music. When a member of the conservatory's faculty dies, the question is: Was it natural causes, or murder?"
The classical music world, as lived by Daniel Jacobus, is a busy and eventful place. Things happen. Music comes alive in the hands of brilliant student violinists performing great Baroque music. You can imagine and almost physically hear the dulcet tones of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons"; timeless melodies float, thanks to Elias' gracefully descriptive prose.
As an example of Elias' wonderful writing, I particularly loved Jacobus' "take," early in the book, on the conventions and deadly accuracy of the “historically informed performance” of Baroque music. Such caustic cynicism; it clearly emanates directly from Elias' mind and experience as a violinist/teacher to protagonist Jacobus’ mouth. Writing such as this is, musically, masterful; it is completely honest and shockingly brutal.
This latest novel within Daniel Jacobus' world of classical music is set within a rarified, cloistered conservatory. As in Elias' previous novels, and via his always-imaginative plotting, we discover that conservatories can be unexpectedly dangerous places, with animosities and confrontations, both spoken and intimated, between artist/faculty and administrators.
In his narrative, and embedded within the often humorous fast-paced plotline, Elias also finds impetus to raise serious, deep and concerning questions of hatred and retribution among the conservatory faculty - most particularly, when the delicate relationship between a master teacher/mentor serially rapes vulnerable young female students; the story proceeds from there. Elias handles these issues sensitively but brilliantly, revealing the spider-like threads within the web of both lust for power and sexual predation within the framework of artistic (and specifically musical) dominance by the conservatory’s resident Maestro, the venerated genius composer Aaron Schlossberg.
To return to the "murder most foul" aspects of the novel, there are - in addition to poisons of the soul, (as in the above) - poisons natural and deadly to discover and avoid in the rural woodlands conservatory environs ("forest to table") underfoot: Omphalotus olarius and Gyromitra esculenta. Looks can deceive; amateur mycologists take note: watch what you eat!
Does one have to be a (classical) musician to appreciate or to "get into" the defined demi-monde that Elias establishes? No. The novel is written in colloquial English, and when musical terminology crops up, Elias defines and explains terms simply and clearly. However, I do believe that the more you know as either a past, practicing or serious hobbyist musician, your own backstory will immensely complement the enjoyment of discovery you’ll experience as you read the book.
"Spring Break" is a wonderful book, and is a great addition, in sequence, to Elias' five previous Daniel Jacobus mysteries. This one also raises important societal issues, as well as being a highly engaging genre page-turner. Kudos to the author for expanding his writer's scope: This book is more than being about music, and Elias has much to say about society's ills, both general and specific, and most importantly, about the price young musicians feel they often must pay to achieve recognition and fame in the rarified, and sometimes, immoral world of classical music.
For a great, late summer read, order your copy of "Spring Break."
Gerald Elias: Spring Break 215 pages – A Daniel Jacobus Mystery. Published by Severn House, 2017. ISBN 978 0 7278 87122.
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