When the 20-year-old David Garrett told his parents that he was leaving his hometown in Germany, and them, to go to New York to study, they had no idea. Still, it was too late for them to do anything about it.
“That’s absolutely how it happened,” he says. “It was pretty much that I had decided that I wanted to go to the United States; it was just something that I had to do. So without saying too much about it, I decided to apply secretly (to the Juilliard School), to audition secretly, and a few days before I left, I let them know that I had been accepted and that I was going. It surprised them, sure, but it saved months of fighting and argument. I think it was the smart way to do it.”
So his mom and dad reluctantly let him go, but they told him he would have to make it on his own. But Garrett had a few things going for him. He was a child prodigy who had been playing violin since the age of four and had first appeared in concert with an orchestra at the age of eight.
While attending Juillard he lived in college dorms, did odd jobs, and even dabbled in modeling. Most importantly, he got down and dirty with the violin, listening to jazz and rock and studying with Itzhak Perlman.
Now David Garrett, the German-American violinist, could very well be the “next big thing,” at least in the rarefied air of the crossover classical artist. Crossover classical musicians are those performers, such as Josh Groban; Sarah Brightman; Andrea Bocelli; the late, great Luciano Pavarotti; and even jazz great Wynton Marsalis, who have taken classical music, or even pop music based on classical, and become so successful that they have turned into pop culture icons.
Garrett, now 28, who looks like Fabio version 2.0 and plays like a combination of Mark O’Connor, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Perlman, is well on his way to becoming another one of those crossover classical superstars. His first eponymous U.S. record, David Garrett, was released early this summer by Decca Records, and it has been moored on top of the Billboard Top Classical Crossover Albums chart since its release. Garrett begins his first ever U.S. tour at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA, on Wednesday, September 16, and appears on Thursday, September 17 at Patriot Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton.
He’s no stranger to the life in the spotlight, though. In addition to his success on stage and on disc, Garrett has parlayed his Euro-heartthrob looks into a legitimate modeling career. As a student in New York, he appeared in Vogue and did some runway work for Armani, and now he is a spokesman for Banana Republic. “It’s been a fun experience,” Garrett says. “It’s a totally different world from what I grew up with. It was a great way of making money, of course, as I had to pay for my whole college tuition.”
Garrett is the star of a recent PBS special — recorded in Berlin and backed by a huge symphony orchestra — which demonstrated his flamboyant on-stage personality, his eclectic tastes in repertoire, and his virtuosic, rapid-fire playing.
Garrett says his parents “were not supportive at first, but they are now quite happy that in the end I made something out of myself on my own.”
He was born David Bongartz in 1981 in the small German city of Aachen. His father is a lawyer from Germany, and his mother is a former ballerina originally from Washington, D.C. When he was four years old, Garrett began playing a violin his father had purchased for his older brother. When he was seven, his parents sent him for lessons at Germany’s Lubeck Conservatoire, and by 13 he had recorded two CDs and performed at Germany’s Presidential Palace for President Richard von Weiszacker.
Shortly after he arrived in New York, he became a student of Perlman, who is on the Juilliard faculty. “It was a fantastic experience, I have to say. It was a wonderful opportunity to work with one of the top violinists of all time, and I certainly can say that I learned a lot from him.”
His parents decided early on to make his mother’s maiden name his name as a performer, Garrett says in a cadence and accent that reflects both Germany and New York, where he lives now. “My parents kind of decided that it was more pronounceable than the German name, so I stuck with that.”
Garrett says he is comfortable here in the States to the point that he doesn’t really see himself as German or American. “Does it really matter where I’m from? I don’t think so any more these days.”
Although Garrett usually performs with a large orchestra, on this tour he will have just a small ensemble consisting of bass, drums, keyboard, and guitar. He has played with this type of ensemble before, but never in the U.S. “We want to get things started over here — we’re doing everything from scratch in terms of America,” he says. “Generally we’ve been doing well on the charts, so I think we’ve gotten off to a good start.”
Garrett’s new record contains music that ranges from classical (Bach and Vivaldi) to soul (“Ain’t No Sunshine,” by Bill Withers) to rock (AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” and Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever”) to Hungarian csardas. One tune he included on the disc, and has been playing live in Europe since last year, is Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” In late June, just as Garrett was unveiling his first American-released CD, Jackson died. “I think everyone was kind of shocked at the news. It was totally unexpected,” Garrett says. “It was sad that somebody with so much talent passed away way before his time. It was a big loss for everybody. In the end, it didn’t affect me very much as a performer, but it was just very sad.”
As a violinist who has been associated with classical music, Garrett admittedly knows it better than any other genre. But he loves the process of exploring other styles of music. “I love music. I love classical music, and I had been immersed in that for the first 15 to 20 years of my existence,” he says. “So if you do that, it is not hard for you to go into different directions of music without prejudice later on. That’s how I approach music. I enjoy a great tune, and a great rhythm, and a great melody. Is it classical or jazz or pop or rock? It really doesn’t matter to me. I don’t see a big difference. Music is either good or not. There are a lot of directions that have not been gone into, so a lot of what I do is an experiment. I really enjoy experimenting.”
The experiments have done fairly well for Garrett. Two of his records in Germany went gold, and his latest American release will soon be certified platinum. But Garrett does not really think or pressure himself about what is coming next. “I don’t think about the past or the future. I just concentrate on what I am doing now, and I try to live every moment as fully and completely as I can.”
David Garrett, Keswick Theater, 291 North Keswick Avenue. Wednesday, September 16, 7:30 p.m. The virtuoso German-born crossover classical violinist launches his first ever U.S. tour. $32.50 and $42.50. 215-572-7650 or www.keswicktheatre.com.
Also, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Thursday, September 17, 7:30 p.m. $18.50 to $30. 609-984-8400 or www.thewarmemorial.com.