Anthony Elias remembers that as early as age five, he wanted to be a neurosurgeon.
It was a dream he realized in spirit if not to the letter of that youthful aspiration. By his early 20s, he was in medical school at New York University, the beginning of a path that brought him to the world of oncology.
He served an internship and residency at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine before completing a fellowship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. There, he directed the Solid Tumor Transplant Program before coming to the University of Colorado Cancer Center and University of Colorado Hospital in 2001. Today he’s director of the Cancer Center’s Breast Cancer and Sarcoma Research programs.
While a distinguished medical and scientific career has been a defining melody, music has been an enduring harmony.
Elias is an accomplished chamber music violinist. He still plays the same instrument his parents purchased for him when he was eight. At an estate sale, it cost $17.50.
“It was in pieces, but once it was put together, it became a decent instrument,” Elias said.
The right notes
His medical aspirations notwithstanding, music was the stronger influence on Elias growing up. He had an aunt whom he described as “an old-fashioned doc” who practiced in Manhattan. “But music was there from the beginning,” he said.
Elias’s mother, a piano teacher, was part of a long line of musicians stretching from the United States to Germany and Belgium. They included a concert maestro in Wiesbaden, Germany and “a few black sheep opera singers,” he said. His father, a philosophy professor at City College of New York who ultimately rose to vice president of academic affairs, was a music lover and “opera fanatic” who as a hobby organized worldwide trips to sample the music, Elias said.
Under his mother’s tutelage, Elias began piano lessons at age six – “I wasn’t a very good student,” he admits – before deciding on violin.
He continued to study the violin through college, including a stint at Meadowmount School of Music, a “hard-core string camp” on the shores of Lake Champlain in Westport, N.Y. founded in 1944 by Ivan Galamian. Generally considered one of the greatest violin teachers of the modern age, Galamian had pupils who included Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman. One of Galamian’s teaching assistants, Dorothy Delay, went on to a distinguished teaching career in her own right.
“Galamian trained most of the major violinists from the ‘40s to the ‘70s,” Elias said.
A new movement
At age 16, Elias had many friends who were on their way to becoming professional musicians, and he describes himself as “good enough to be competitive. Many of my friends got positions with symphonies around the country, and I think I could have made one,” he said.
But something was missing, he added.
“I noticed that many of my musician friends didn’t enjoy playing as much as they considered it a job,” Elias said. “For me, playing music was a pleasure, and it was still fun. I didn’t want that to happen.”
Besides, he had another love. Math came easily, and the sciences were not only intriguing but filled with promise. When Elias entered Princeton University as a pre-med undergraduate in the early 1970s, molecular biology “had just been invented,” as he put it. Science, he added, “fired different synapses” in his brain than music.
“Music is fabulous for the soul,” Elias said, “but it made me less intellectually curious than science and history.”
Still, music made a powerful and enduring mark nearly from the beginning of his time at Princeton. He was carrying his violin case to an orchestra audition the first week of classes when he stopped at a meeting of pre-med students and scanned the room for a seat. A graduate of an all-boys high school in New York, Elias was hopeful of meeting someone of the opposite sex. He spied two girls, separated by an empty chair: one a blonde, the other carrying a violin.
“I said to myself, ‘That’s a seat made for me,’” he recalled. The girl with the violin turned out to be his future wife, Ellen, an MD and professor of pediatric clinical genetics and metabolism who practices at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
“I say I met my wife through music and medicine,” Elias said.
As he progressed through medical school and beyond, Elias kept his violin and his musical technique in tune. He performed in string quartets while at NYU. The time at Hopkins included playing in a semi-professional orchestra for interns and residents.
Keeping the spark alive wasn’t always easy. In the 1980s, Elias and his wife routinely toiled through 110-hour weeks. “When we came to a 10-bar rest during rehearsal,” he joked, ”we might not open their eyes until the next movement.” The orchestra conductor at Hopkins took that into account, he said.
“He knew we were working,” Elias said. “We stayed awake for the concert.”
The Eliases took a break from orchestra playing when they moved to Boston and started a family. But music never strayed far from the framework of their lives. Their three kids frequently went to sleep under the piano while gentle showers of notes from Mozart and Brahms descended.
All in the family
Apparently, it made an impression – his daughter is a cellist, one son plays clarinet and piano, and the other sings.
With the children now grown, the family dog is the happy listener – with one exception.
“He hates Shostakovich,” Elias said.
It’s not an opinion Elias shares, although he says he had to work harder to approach the aurally challenging music of the Russian Shostakovich and the modernists of the 20th and 21st centuries who followed him.
“You have to get used to the dissonance,” he said. “Intellectually it takes a while to accept and appreciate it. But once you know the music and learn what to expect, it’s delicious.”
Elias is also intrigued by the new musical ground modern composers plow. “I wish I were good enough to play the modern stuff,” he said. “The timing and rhythm are difficult to put together. Maybe when I retire.”
He hasn’t put his violin and bow down. When he goes on vacation, he practices every day and seeks out opportunities to play with others. On one trip to Italy with his family, he recalled, he arranged a musical evening with a mathematician in Padua. It made for a memorable dinner spiced with combinations of music.
This month he and Ellen will perform with a string quartet at the Rocky Ridge Music Center at the foot of Longs Peak. Elias says he relishes the serenity of the four-day session.
“There are no cell phones,” he said. “Just peace and quiet.”
While music and medicine by necessity occupy separate spheres of his life, Elias said the two disciplines overlap.
“The musical mind and the scientific mind mesh,” he said. “To get good at either, you have to focus and be dedicated and pay attention to details. These are attributes of the good musician and the good physician.”
He strives to preserve the balance. “Music expands the brain; it exercises everything,” he said. “All work and no play is deadly.”