Interview with violinist David Garrett: 'I thought my father hated me'
By Liz Jones For You Magazine
Published: 18:40 EST, 4 April 2015 | Updated: 18:40 EST, 4 April 2015
With his good looks and designer wardrobe, he’s the pin-up of the classical music world. Tantalisingly single, he’s mobbed by screaming fans wherever he plays. But what are the demons that drive this virtuoso violinist? Liz Jones follows him to Italy to find out...
If this was my life – travelling from one city to the next, never seeing anything other than yet more corporate carpet – I’d keel over. But it turns out that solo violinist David Garrett spends up to 340 days a year living out of a suitcase, eating room-service food, his 299-year-old Stradivarius violin strapped to his back, probably the most precious rucksack in the world (it’s worth £3.6 million). On a sofa in his suite on the fifth floor of Turin’s Golden Palace hotel, I ask how he copes with the gruelling routine. ‘I try to do breathing meditation for sleep: that usually takes the thoughts away and relaxes my body. I don’t have any special ritual before a show. This is my life. I try to make it normal.’
“I don’t care about people who don’t take me seriously because of my appearance ”
We meet the morning after his concert at the Rai Auditorium. David had swaggered onstage, glamorous in a black suit, one hand in his pocket, violin aloft in a wave, and you’d be forgiven for thinking his surname was Cassidy: the audience of mainly women – aged from 11 to over 80 – were screaming. I met one fan beforehand: Stefania, a 26-year-old Italian who works in IT, who had flown from Cork to be here, along with her mother, an English teacher, and 15 of her 13-year-old pupils.
Another fan tells me she has been to every concert David has given in the past three years. What is it about him that inspires such adoration? Says Stefania, ‘He always recognises the work of the orchestra and the other people playing beside him. The way he performs every song, classical or not, is unique. He feels the music, he reinterprets it so that he is actually shaping it in a new and unexpected way.’
And he’s a hunk, too, I add. She laughs. ‘I wanted to meet him after the show as my 11-year-old friend wanted her violin signed. We were told it was not possible, but I bought him flowers, and made sure they were delivered to him.’
In his room, David carefully takes the violin from its case. ‘Oh, it’s so small!’ I say, surprised, as its melancholic sound had filled the auditorium. ‘That’s not something I usually like to hear,’ says David, blue eyes twinkling, placing a little cloth over its bottom, and nestling it under his chin. Does he feel it has a gender? ‘Not really. It’s part of me.’
In 2007 at London’s Barbican, he slipped and fell on the case carrying his beloved £1 million 1772 Guadagnini violin, cracking it in six places. ‘I felt I’d lost my life partner. I was just about to pay the last instalment on the loan. It was finally mine, and I broke it.’ (Repairs took seven months and cost £60,000.)
His room – bar the empty cigarette packets (in his dressing room the night before, he had smoked out of the window, waving at fans down below) – is very tidy: he’s a typical Virgo. There are no personal mementos, no groupies. ‘I have flats in New York and Berlin, I sometimes miss being at home because I know where things are there. I don’t care about possessions. I’ve never bought a car in my life; I’d rather collect property.’
While David was resplendent in a black suit last night, today he’s in his trademark look: distressed jeans, Union Jack T-shirt, asymmetric Y Project jacket, chunky skull necklaces and rings, hair in a ponytail, strong arms covered in a tattoo that says ‘Rock and roll’. Does he have a stylist? ‘If anybody bought me clothes it was in relationships in New York when I was in college. You know how women are when they date – “Try this on, try that on.” I wear something I feel comfortable in. Going on stage is hard enough – a lot of people, a lot of expectations, mostly your own – so you need to find who you are, and since I never wear a tuxedo in my private life I feel like this is my clothes, something I feel sexy in. I wear it on stage because it gives me the confidence to only concentrate on music.’
Last night, having played Brahms, his encores were Bach’s ‘Sarabande’, followed by Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’. ‘That was very spur of the moment. I did see some young people in the audience so I thought, “OK, I give them something to cheer them up.”’
David’s speech is a seductive hybrid of clipped German and New York drawl. He is the master of the ‘crossover’ performance: he is as likely to be found performing Coldplay to a stadium of 15,000 as he is to be in a concert hall, flanked by an orchestra. I’m not a fan of crossover – because what could be more beautiful than Bach? – but David explains, ‘I want families to take their kids, I want teenagers to come, I want the mid-20s to come. I don’t want to always stand still, I want to move with the violin!’ Why then hasn’t the notoriously snooty classical world turned its back on him? ‘Because I’m very good at it,’ he smiles.
“If I’m only semi in love I’m probably not the best boyfriend ”
When did he start dyeing his hair? I’d noticed, in the endless YouTube footage of him – in 1991, performing with the Hamburg Philharmonic; in 1993, performing at the Verbier festival – he was definitely dark. He has very black brows and stubble, and impossibly long and curly black lashes. ‘Right now it’s just got a lot of sun so it’s not really that bleached, but I go back and forth depending on the season. I had it quite dark for the movie I did about two years ago [he played Paganini in The Devil’s Violinist, but says of a film career, ‘I don’t think I’m made for it’]. I started dyeing it during my college years because it’s such a dull brown and I was like, “Meh! Blond could be more fun.”’
I wonder if he’s vain. ‘I try not to eat junk food, I make sure my system works: I have to make sure I’m physically good because I play a lot of shows. I travel a lot so it makes sense to maintain myself, but there is a difference between maintaining a healthy situation and being vain. I don’t spend much time in the bathroom at all.’
He’s always being compared to David Beckham. ‘He’s a good-looking guy so I take that as a compliment. I did meet him once, at the GQ awards in Berlin. He has a home base so he could take his family with him. I spend ten months not at home, so if I had a girlfriend or a wife, yes she could travel with me, but can you imagine having kids unable to go to normal school? I’m not saying that I’m thinking of doing this for the next 30, 40 years, but it’s also the way this job works: you cannot sustain success on that kind of level if you say, “No, I’m only going to play 30 shows a year.”’
He surprises me when he says he’s not long back from a holiday. ‘I went at Christmas, to the Maldives. I took my mum.’
Ah, his mother. A formidable, blonde American beauty, Dove Garrett (David took her maiden name, as his father’s surname, Bongartz, was deemed too foreign) was a ballet dancer who met her future husband, Georg, a lawyer, at a concert, when she came to Frankfurt to perform.
David was born in Aachen, Germany, close to the borders with Belgium and the Netherlands, and started playing the violin aged four. His brother Alex, who is two years older, had already started playing, and whatever his brother had, David wanted too. But it was David who had the talent, and when his father, who played the violin in addition to running an auction house that sold musical instruments, realised this, he took control of his son’s life. ‘It wasn’t that my brother wasn’t talented,’ says David, ‘but he caved under the pressure, he started crying more than me.’
So David began the arduous crawl to excellence: at five he was driven to Holland each weekend to study. Aged seven, he was driven six hours to Lübeck in the north every week to study under a different teacher. He was home-schooled by a private tutor, and gave his first performance with the Hamburg Philharmonic aged ten. At 13, he was signed to the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, which led to him recording, at just 14, all 24 of Paganini’s ‘Caprices’ and playing concerts with the world’s leading orchestras. To date he has sold 3.5 million albums, and his string of summer open-air shows in Germany is a sellout.
It sounds incredibly hard. ‘My choice was to play music, [it] wasn’t to practise so much, you know, the discipline. I’m OK with the past. I’m OK with those troubled times because they ended up leading me to where I am right now. But there were a lot of tears involved.’
He once said his parents made ‘a million mistakes’. ‘Doesn’t every parent? They were very tough. My dad especially was very tough on me. It was mainly verbal. It was a different generation… Certainly we had the physical situation with my dad.’ He pauses and looks tearful.
‘The thing is, I was very young, he was working with me every day for six, seven hours, it was just hard to understand as a kid that being put down verbally was not a sign of him not caring about me; as a kid you think they hate you. My dad called me names. It wasn’t good what he did, obviously, and certainly a mistake. I wouldn’t do it with my kids. He wanted a result which in the end happened. Did he use the right methods? Certainly not. Did he get the result? Yes. I wouldn’t relive my past. I would not want a single day as a kid again because it was really not nice. But it did everything it needed to do in order for me to be where I am now.’
Is he still close to his dad? ‘My parents are no longer together. But I still see him, yes.’
If he hadn’t been a musician? ‘A banker. I like working with figures.’ I’m not sure if he’s teasing. Would he want his child to become a musician? ‘You’re kidding me. I’ve had so much music in my life I want it to be quiet at home. Here’s the thing, if they really want to do it I’m not going to stop them, but I’m not going to give them an instrument and say, “Now, go start practice”.’
David was finally able to break free from his dad. Aged 17, at the height of his career, he left for New York, on the pretext of going to visit his brother, by then at Harvard. He auditioned for Juilliard, the prestigious school of music, drama and dance. Why should this upset his parents? ‘Dad didn’t think I needed to learn anything. He was wrong at that point.’
His father disowned him, which is why David had to pay his way by modelling for the likes of Armani and appearing in Vogue. Was there no money left from all the years spent performing and recording? ‘My parents spent all of that, and a little bit more, on private tutoring, on my travel to teachers in Miami, New York. We had to pay five or six teachers a month to come to our house. I went to New York with about £13,500 and I had to pay that back as well as make money for tuition.’
For three years, David studied musicology and composition under the renowned violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman as well as composer Eric Ewazen, who said of him, ‘His spectacular, heartfelt and expressive playing dazzled those of us who had the great pleasure of teaching him, and we recognised his extraordinary gifts and amazing talent.’
I tell David his good looks work against him, make those who don’t know their Paganini from their Purcell think he’s all image. ‘I don’t care about people who don’t take me seriously because they judge me from appearance, not from what I do. Basically, they are the frauds, not me.’
He tells me he ‘went out a lot in college at weekends when there were no classes’; he never went really wild. ‘Responsibility is in my bones. Maybe I did it twice or three times in my life, and I got really f***ed the next day with work, and that really bothered me.’
Having been home-tutored from the age of eight until he was 17, this was the first time David had something close to a normal life. He made friends. Is he still in touch with any of them? ‘There was an actress: she is really famous now, she made a movie with Brad Pitt. Somehow she slipped my mind…never mind. I was pretty close to the dancers. I made friends quickly, but what happened is I missed that moment in high school when you find out that people who are nice to you are not necessarily nice behind your back. Everyone was extremely nice to me in college so I thought, “Very nice people!”, but then I figured out they were not talking nicely behind my back. I learned late that adults are not nice people.’
So who is his best friend now? ‘Eric Wentz, an actor I met in college. There is an organ player… Um.’ While he is ‘very close’ to his brother, who has a family and a dog and lives just outside New York City, even his younger sister Elena seems at arm’s length, as he tells me, ‘She’s a musician, she wants to work with me… I don’t know.’
I tell him I feel sorry for him. He doesn’t even have the stellar entourage. He travels with two people: Tobias Weigold-Wimmer, who looks after the classical side, and tour manager Jörg Kollenbroich, with whom he plans to spend the afternoon in the gym, after the requisite four hours of daily practice. ‘I like being a soloist. I have to do all my work by myself, but I like that. There is no groomer, no chef. I take a normal plane.’
And after a concert, back at the hotel? ‘The worst aspect is being by yourself at the end of the night – it’s not loneliness, but you have to be very secure with yourself and to know what to do with yourself. It’s very isolated.’
Do the orchestra members resent his stardom? The violinists have all been playing since they could barely crawl, too, so what sets him apart? ‘Lots of things. First of all, the technique to play a big violin concerto, well, not everybody has it, actually just a few: I can count the really good violinists on two hands. And it’s of course having the memory, not having the nerves on stage.’ Is he a diva? ‘I consider myself a nice person, I don’t think I’ve had any complaints. I think I’m still pretty much grounded and I treat people nicely. I don’t lose my temper.’
While the orchestra members read from sheet music, David has memorised his entire 90-minute performance. ‘I’ve never analysed how I do it, I guess it’s a talent…it’s something that has always been there. It’s an instinct for music combined with a really good technique which comes from work and discipline over many years. It takes a lot of strength to project in a big hall against the orchestra.’
I tell him I’d been surprised that, after the first, very long movement, when he had put down his bow, there was no applause. Traditionally, he tells me, classical audiences wait until the very end to clap. ‘It’s like making love to a woman, and she makes no sound. It’s disconcerting. You have no idea how well you’re doing.’
Ah. And so to women. The music he plays is so romantic. Has he ever had his heart broken? ‘Many times.’ Ever been in love? ‘Of course.’ Is he in a relationship now? ‘Maybe, maybe not. It is very hard to meet a woman when I’m on the road.’
I wonder, given his closeted childhood, whether he was a virgin when he enrolled at the Juilliard. ‘I didn’t know where to meet women; I was extremely shy. I went a year before without my parents to a music camp in Israel. That was the first time I made out with a girl. I was 17, 18.’ And how many have there been? ‘Maybe three girlfriends in college – I would think that’s reasonable.’
So what is his favourite thing to do on a date? ‘I love to walk. For me the ideal date is taking a walk in a great city like Rome or Paris or New York when it’s snowing. Women hate that because they don’t get to wear shoes, exactly, but they can wear sneakers. I find beauty in everything that is slow.’
It’s no wonder he’s single and approaching 35. When did he last ‘go for a walk’ with a woman? ‘It was just after Christmas.’
His ideal woman? He has a T-shirt with the face of model Lily Donaldson on the chest. ‘You have to have first of all a good heart, and if you can laugh and not be stressed with each other that’s important. I’m not an arguing person.’
Is he a good boyfriend? ‘When I’m really in love I will make a huge effort. If I’m semi in love I’m probably not the best boyfriend. I’m horrible at remembering stuff. ’
Tonight, another show in Turin, then he’s off to Naples, then London, to work with a talented young female pianist. He recently played in Moscow. How did he feel given Putin’s stance on Ukraine, on homosexuality? ‘I’m so not a political person. Obviously I watch it but in the end I consider myself very neutral. All I’m trying to do is give people love in their hearts.’
I take my leave, but not before having my photo taken with David playing me with his bow. ‘Do “Sarabande”,’ I ask him. ‘No, too much violent movement, I would hit you in the face.’ Has he seen Fifty Shades of Grey yet? ‘No, thank God. Too much hype. I plan to stay away.’
Does he have a dark side? ‘I’m pretty sure I do. But for me the priority is to be great on stage.’ .