Violinist Daniel Heifetz still wonders whether he should have been a doctor, like his father. "My parents wanted a normal kid," he says. "My father thought, 'If you become a violinist, great, but you first have to be a person.' "
In a career that began in 1969, when he won the Merriweather Post competition, and escalated to international attention in 1978, when he won the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, Heifetz has worked hard to keep perspective and maintain balance as a person.
"I remember my first performance at the Hollywood Bowl," he says. "I was nervous and my father got angry, 'What right do you have to be nervous? What a self-centered, arrogant person you are to be nervous. As a doctor, if I make a mistake a person dies; if you make a mistake it's a bad note.' "
Maybe the first mistake Heifetz made was unwittingly choosing, at age 6, to play an instrument already mastered by another with the same last name. As far as he knows, he is not related to Jascha Heifetz, whom many consider the finest violinist of the 20th century -- perhaps of all time.
"I didn't know who he was when I started out," Heifetz says, "I remember once someone asking 'Are you related to the Heifetz?' and I said 'I don't know, I'm just a regular Heifetz.' There were rumors when I was accepted at Curtis [Institute] that the reason they accepted me was so they could hang a sign: 'Heifetz studied here.' "
Sharing Jascha's name is a topic that Daniel just recently feels comfortable talking about. He has become a friend of the other Heifetz and says he is "overwhelmed" by the fact that they have the same name. "At the same time I think I have my own statement to make even though he is the god of violin. He respects my family because we're the only Heifetzes that don't claim to be related to him."
"It is hard enough to create something when you come on stage, but to do it knowing that an audience has Jascha ringing in their ears is a battle uphill," he says.
Both Daniel's and Jascha's families came from the same town, Vilna, Lithuania, now part of the Soviet Union, a country where Daniel Heifetz won glory but to which he perhaps will never return.
After winning the Tchaikovsky competition, he got into trouble with the Soviet authorities by associating with and giving his prize money (1,000 rubles -- about $ 1,500) to Soviet dissidents. "Maybe because I am an American," he says, "I had a naive sense of being invulnerable while I was in Russia." He made arrangements to donate the money with Irina Ginsburg, wife of imprisoned Soviet dissident Alexander Ginsburg.
Not realizing that Heifetz was staying another week, Ginsburg announced his actions to the media. Journalists there realized the danger and agreed to keep the information quiet.
"As long as it was not public I was still safe," Heifetz recalls. At the winners' concert, which was to be taped and broadcast throughout the Soviet Union, Heifetz chose to play Ernest Bloch's "Nigun," which is based on motifs of life in the Jewish ghetto in the 19th century. "We were yelling at one another backstage because the announcer refused to say the Hebrew word 'Nigun,' " he says. The following day Heifetz's performances of "Nigun" and "Tzsigane" were deleted from the broadcast. "I no longer existed," he says.
Born 36 years ago in Kansas City, Mo., and raised in Southern California, Heifetz began violin studies as a child after hearing a violinist on television, but says he always envisioned himself as a doctor. Still, he wanted to find out once and for all how good a violinist he was. At 16, he decided to audition for the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, considered one of the most difficult conservatories of music in the world to enter. "It was my first time on the East Coast," he says, "and I thought after the audition I could put my fiddle away and go on [with being a doctor]."
But the late Efrem Zimbalist saw a hidden spark. He had no openings but he made a place for Heifetz, becoming his "musical grandfather." He lent Heifetz, his last student, his own Guarneri del Gesu violin for his New York debut, and when Heifetz began touring as a soloist, gave the Guarneri to him. Heifetz played it for eight years. Then he bought a 1722 De Chaponay Stradivarius that had been in a collection and not played for more than 100 years. "It was not behind glass, but I am the first person in this century to reintroduce its sound," Heifetz says. The Guarneri possessed a dark sound, but the Strad allows him a ringing soprano that is still gutsy, throaty and mellow, he says.
Heifetz moved to Baltimore six years ago when the director of the Peabody Conservatory invited him to rejuvenate the violin program. At one time he had 30 students, but has given up teaching and now has only two private violin students.
"I was a full-time teacher and a full-time concert artist. I decided that I had to be selective with my energies," he says. "One of my problems is I'm a 100 percent person, so I was Daddy, psychiatrist and teacher to each student. I was doing too much," he says.
"At some point in life you have to make choices for what you love most," Heifetz says. "I did a lot of soul searching, and my heart is in performing and being with my family. I'm getting my perspective on things."
A few years ago, Heifetz says he told his father, "Dad, I feel so insignificant; I just play music, but you -- you save lives." This time his father said, "I may save lives, Danny, but what you do makes life worth living."