Interview with Daniel Heifetz, Part 1: Becoming Daniel Heifetz, in the shadow of Jascha Heifetz

April 24, 2016, 10:45 PM · This is PART 1 of a three-part interview with Daniel Heifetz. Click here to read:

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How do you make a name for yourself as a violinist, with a name that the world associates with another violinist?

In the early days of his career, this was an obvious question for violinist Daniel Heifetz, now 67. Though he publicly claimed no relation to Jascha Heifetz (whom he knew to be a distant cousin), Daniel Heifetz found himself associated with and compared to the famous violinist at every turn.

Daniel Heifetz has his own story, one filled with struggle, triumph, disappointment and reinvention. He studied with some of the finest pedagogues of the 20th century -- Efrem Zimbalist, Jascha Brodsky and Ivan Galamian to name a few. He played on some of the world's finest instruments -- including the 1735 "Zimbalist" Guarneri del Gesù, and the 1722 "De Chaponay" Strad. He toured Europe with violinist Henryk Szeryng and then toured for the famous promoter Sol Hurok.

Eventually he did gain recognition in his own right, only to find himself struggling against a congenital nerve condition that was to cut short his playing career. Ever able to reinvent, Heifetz turned his passion for performing into an educational project, founding the Heifetz International Music Institute, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The annual six-week program for young musicians, which has served 1,400 students since 1996, specializes in teaching talented string musicians not only technique, but also the art of expression, performance and communication. This year they will start a new program for even younger musicians, ages 8-13.

I spoke to Daniel Heifetz during the Heifetz Institute last summer in Staunton, Va. We spoke in his upstairs office as lessons, chamber rehearsals, communication classes and master classes went on in the rooms below at Mary Baldwin College. Heifetz most certainly is a natural communicator with an easy smile, and he told his story with candor, humility, laughter and even a few tears. We will tell it in three parts, beginning with his decision to become a violinist instead of a doctor -- and to keep his name, "Heifetz."

Daniel Heifetz
Daniel Heifetz.

* * *

Daniel Heifetz born in Kansas City, Mo. to a neurosurgeon and his wife, and he was raised in Southern California: first in Pasadena, then in Beverly Hills.

"When I was five, I saw a violinist on T.V. whose name was Florian ZaBach, and he was playing Hot Canary. I was just mesmerized," Heifetz said. "I started crying and begging my parents for a violin."

Daniel Heifetz, 6They brought him a tiny violin. Having never touched one before, "it seems that I took it out of its case, I opened up the front door to our house, put the violin under my chin, and yelled to the people across the street, 'Hey, look at me!'" he said. "My parents realized, 'Oh my gosh, we have a little performer on our hands!'"

And they did. "I skipped the beginner stage and I was immediately playing things like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto at age six," Heifetz said. "I started with a friend of the family who did not believe in technique; he just started throwing repertoire at me, and I was doing it by hook or by crook. Finally my parents realized that this was not right, and they found Sascha Jacobsen. When Jacobsen took a sabbatical, I did some studying with Israel Baker, who was Jascha Heifetz' assistant and who performed with him at all the Heifetz/Piatigorsky concerts. That started giving me some foundation."

Living in Beverly Hills, the Hollywood-types were encouraging Heifetz' parents to take him out of school and get him performing as a child prodigy.

"My parents told everybody no. 'We want our kid to have a normal childhood, not to be exploited as a child prodigy,'" Heifetz said. Heifetz went to public schools, including Beverly Hills High School. "I did start at the LA Conservatory, which is now part of Cal Arts, in what became the Whiskey-A-Go-Go building on Sunset Strip."

At 12 years old, he started going to school a half-day so that he could go to the LA Conservatory and practice during the afternoons. Despite that considerable commitment to violin practice, Heifetz remained unsure about his future.

"I still didn't know whether I would be a doctor like my dad, who was a neurosurgeon, or a violinist," Heifetz said.

When he was 15, Heifetz attended summer music camp at Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, Maine. "That was the first time I was exposed to other serious young musicians, and of a certain caliber," Heifetz said. "So the next year, when I was a junior in high school, I decided to find out once and for all. I wanted to know what my potential was."

At Kneisel Hall, Heifetz had heard kids from New York speak about Juilliard and Curtis. "They'd said that Curtis was the only conservatory in the country that you couldn't buy your way in; it's all scholarship," Heifetz said. "So I said to my parents, 'I want to audition for Curtis and be told once and for all. If I can't get into Curtis, then I guess I don't have that extra amount of talent or spark.' I needed somehow to judge what my potential was."

So at age 16, Heifetz flew to Philadelphia to audition for Curtis. It was like traveling to another world.

"Beverly Hills is not like an East Coast downtown city," Heifetz said. "I'll never forget, just walking down the streets and hearing kids practicing from their apartments with the windows open -- and then walking into Curtis, the Biddle Mansion. I went to my audition; I'd prepared the Bach G minor fugue and the Vieuxtemps Fifth Violin Concerto. At that time, Efrem Zimbalist was the director, and the main three violin teachers were Zimbalist, Ivan Galamian, and Jascha Brodsky. I was told that Zimbalist had no openings, and it was only potentially Galamian or Jascha Brodsky."

"I walked in, and people were kind of joking about my name," Heifetz said. It wasn't the first time that had happened. When he was much younger, attending a children's concert, the performer, violinist Henri Temianki, asked the audience, "Are there any kids in here who play an instrument?" The young Daniel, sitting with his parents, raised his hand. Temianki said, "Okay, come on down," He gave him a violin Daniel played a little. Temianki asked, "What's your name?" He said, "I'm Danny Heifetz!" Temianki said, "Heifetz?! Like Jascha Heifetz?" and Daniel said, "No, the other Heifetz!"

"I didn't even know who Jascha was at that point!" Daniel said.

A decade later at Curtis, "I walked into the room, and they were all making cracks about Daniel 'Heifetz.' I played, they said, 'Thank you,' and I left. I went back to the hotel, thinking, 'Well I might as well enjoy being in Philadelphia, I'll never be here again!' I just thought, 'Okay that's over with, now I'm ready to go back and finish my senior year in high school and go to UCLA and become a doctor, okay, done.'"

Then the phone rang in his hotel room. "It was Zimbalist's secretary, who said, 'Daniel, Mr. Zimbalist would like to hear you again. Would you come back?'" He went back, the secretary ushered him into the Zimbalist studio, a room with Persian carpets and curious displays, like death masks of Beethoven and Schubert and a plaster cast of cellist Emanuel Feuermann's hands. "It was like another world," Heifetz said. Zimbalist sat down at the piano and asked him to play the Vieuxtemps concerto again, while he accompanied. After playing for some time, Zimbalist stopped, rose, then walked over to Heifetz. He asked him, "Would you like to study with me?" Though his studio was full, Zimbalist asked him to work with him over the summer at his home in Rockport, Maine.

Recounting that unexpected turn of events makes Heifetz emotional, even today. "My whole life was going to change direction, and I didn't know what that meant," Heifetz said. "I went back home and one-two-three: I finished my junior year of high school; flew out to Rockport, Maine; and spent the summer with Mr. Zimbalist, working with me. It was such an overwhelming experience."

"I did not have a technical foundation, but (Zimbalist) saw the spark," Heifetz said. "Years later, after Zimbalist retired, and after I finished with Galamian, Galamian told me that neither he nor Jascha Brodsky thought I was good enough to get into Curtis. But Zimbalist smelled it. Galamian said, 'yours was the only big mistake I ever made,' because he didn't recognize it, when Zimbalist recognized it. That meant a lot, when he said that to me."

After studying about a year with Zimbalist, Heifetz came home and played for his old teacher, Jacobsen, "after which he had a private talk with my parents in our home in Beverly Hills," Heifetz said. "He told my parents, 'Danny is too far behind technically, he'll never make it as a violinist, even if he practices as much as possible.'" Coming from someone whom they felt had not pushed him to practice nor emphasized technique, the comment made his parents furious. It made Heifetz furious as well -- and it gave him fierce determination.

"I realized how hungry I was to be a violinist, and I started practicing eight hours a day," Heifetz said. In addition, "my parents did something extraordinary. My father went to Zimbalist and literally told Mr. Zimbalist that he wasn't doing enough for me, that I needed technical work, foundational work. And Zimbalist, who was a great human being, said, 'Dr. Heifetz, you're right.' He asked Jascha Brodsky to give me one lesson every week on technique. So for the next few years, I had two lessons a week: one with Zimbalist, one with Brodsky. And Jascha Brodsky taught me how to play a scale, he taught me how to vibrate. He gave me a tremendous amount of my violinistic foundation."

As for Zimbalist, "he gave me a concept of elegant nobility in my approach to music-making. He gave me the concept that you never sacrifice beauty for polyphony. I'd be working on the Dvorak Violin Concerto and he would say, 'This beautiful little phrase, play this like a mother caressing a child.'"

He particularly remembers working on the violin concerto by Alexander Glazunov with Zimbalist: "Since he was a friend of Glazunov, every week he would remember a new thing that Glazunov had told him," Heifetz said. "It was never done! After four months on the Glazunov Concerto I said, 'Mr. Zimbalist, can we go to a different concerto?!'" He laughs.

Daniel Heifetz at CurtisHeifetz practiced like crazy. "It was a monastic life I was leading at Curtis. I wasn't going out with friends; I was so hungry to learn how to play the violin that I couldn't go to sleep at night because there were too many hours before I could wake up in the morning and practice," Heifetz said. When he walked into Harvey's House, the corner coffee shop, at 11 p.m., bleary-eyed, the waitresses knew to give him his coffee milkshake, "and if I didn't have the money today, I'd be back the next night after practicing."

Every bit of progress was hard-won for Heifetz. "I'd be practicing and practicing, and I'd feel like I was at a plateau, and that it's not going anywhere. Then suddenly it would jump to the next level," Heifetz said. "I'll never forget, when I was working on the Brahms Concerto with Zimbalist, I'd been practicing so hard. One morning, I picked up the violin and started playing these long scale passages from the Brahms, and it was there! I threw the violin down on my couch and said, 'Whoa, what was that?!' It scared me! I was almost afraid to pick up the violin again, would it still be there? And I'll never forget my next lesson, playing Zimbalist: he stood up, patted me on the cheek and said, 'Danny, we're going to make a violinist out of you yet.'"

When Zimbalist retired, Heifetz studied with Ivan Galamian, and "that's where another world of violin playing opened up to me," Heifetz said. "With Brodsky I learned some basic foundation. From Zimbalist I learned an approach to artistry. And then with Galamian, I was introduced to the science of violin playing." For example, Galamian would suggest going up-bow as a phrase goes up, then down-bow on the cadence of the phrase. "The idea of bowing scientifically, from the shape of the phrase -- it had never occurred to me!" Galamian's idea of the relationship between bow speed, sounding point, weight in the string and how much bow hair -- "it's something that we do automatically -- but you have to understand it all."

And why do you have to understand it all? Because if you can't explain it, you don't know what you're doing. That was an attitude that Heifetz' father instilled in him from a young age. Galamian had plenty of good explanations, as well as particular ideas. In fact, Heifetz did not always agree with Galamian's ideas, but he felt that the best way to learn was to do as his teacher asked first, then add his own ideas. "If he told me to do something, I would work to do it perfectly, the way he wanted it, using his fingerings, his bowings, and his musical approach," Heifetz said. "Then I would say, 'Mr. Galamian, can you now listen to another way that I might like to do it?'" Sometimes Galamian would agree to let him do it his own way, sometimes not.

At a certain point, it was time for Heifetz to stop his obsessive practice and start performing. It was a development that Heifetz said he resisted, always feeling that he wasn't ready. When Heifetz was 20, Galamian insisted that he enter the Merriweather Post Competition. "It was the first competition I ever went to, in Washington, D.C. This was in '69, before the Kennedy Center was built, and there was one other person in the finals with me, Phillip Setzer." Setzer's playing was so unbelievably good, Heifetz was convinced he could never win. "I walked out on stage with the attitude, 'Well, this will be the only time I ever play a concerto with an orchestra, so I might as well enjoy it, it's never going to happen again!'"

He played the Tchaikovsky Concerto, and he won the competition. "That started my career," Heifetz said. "The Washington Post came out the next day, saying, 'A violinist named Heifetz...' all that started."

When Heifetz gave his New York debut the next season with the National Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall, the famous artist manager Sol Hurok was in attendance. "The next day I got a great review in the New York Times, and Sol Hurok asked me to come to his office," Heifetz said. Hurok offered him a contract to be one of his artists -- "And he had THE great list of artists."

Hurok told him, "I'm not offering the contract just because you played so well. I'm offering you the contract because I was watching the audience when you walked out on stage. When you walked out on stage the audience went like this..." -- they sat forward. For Heifetz, that was a lifetime lesson on the importance of stage presence and charisma. "That's why Hurok offered me a contract to be one of his solo artists," Heifetz said. "Because of what happened when he saw me walk out on stage, what he felt in the audience."

Hurok had another question for Heifetz. "Are you going to change your name?" Hurok asked, referring to the obvious connections people might try to make to the towering figure of violinist Jascha Heifetz, then around 70 years old and well-established as a "God" of the violin. Heifetz was young, and maybe naive. He told him, "Mr. Hurok, I've always been Danny Heifetz. It's my father's name, I couldn't imagine being named something else."

Hurok responded: "Well then, mark my words: you're going to have to work twice as hard, and it's going to take you twice as long to make a career." Looking back, Heifetz said that Hurok was right. Heifetz denied any relationship to Jascha Heifetz, in order to establish his own name, as Daniel Heifetz. (In recent years he has admitted that he is a distant cousin.)

In his early career, Daniel Heifetz performed with great orchestras: Cleveland, Philadelphia, Berlin, Los Angeles. He performed on five continents as a soloist. But he couldn't shake the comparisons to Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz has a file of newspaper clippings, and over time, the progression of reviews went approximately like:

"Daniel Heifetz played beautifully but remember how Jascha Heifetz played it..."
"Daniel Heifetz -- not the real Heifetz."
"Daniel Heifetz, the other Heifetz."
"Daniel Heifetz, the young Heifetz."

"I can't list all the different ways people were doing that to me, but at a certain point, it stopped," he said, "and it was just, 'Daniel Heifetz.'"

NEXT: PART 2: Living the life of a soloist, then the devastating discovery of a congenital nerve defect

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Replies

April 25, 2016 at 10:09 AM · Nice article. I was also inspired to take up the violin after watching Florian Zabach in the early days of television, also Liberace's brother George, and later Jack Benny with Gizelle McKenzie.

April 25, 2016 at 01:53 PM · I also had a teacher who threw Lalo at me at the age of eight. I spent years trying to fill the gaps in technique basics. I had been a professional for many years when I was fortunate enough to study with my dear friend (and yours!), Marylou Speaker Churchill. In my late forties, due to her and lots of diligent practice, I became the violinist I always wanted to be.

Marylou always spoke admiringly of you. I hope to hear you play some day.

April 25, 2016 at 03:15 PM · "Years later ... Galamian told me that neither he nor Jascha Brodsky thought I was good enough to get into Curtis. But Zimbalist smelled it. Galamian said, 'yours was the only big mistake I ever made,' because he didn't recognize it, when Zimbalist recognized it."

Possibly because that's the only such mistake Galamian knows about?

April 26, 2016 at 06:26 PM · indeed Paul, that was also my immediate reaction!

May 1, 2016 at 11:29 PM · I heard you play a beautiful recital at San Feancisco's Legion of Homour museum. I was very impressed.. Late 70's.

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