Every career has to start somewhere. For Charles Haupt -- the concertmaster for Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for the last 37 years -- it started in the summer of 1946, in the Catskills.
He was 7. His parents liked to go there on vacation, and joining them would be Haupt's father's best friend, the great violinist Josef Gingold.
Gingold had a precocious son, George, and the two boys found themselves involved in a kind of rivalry. "George was almost like a vaudeville actor," Haupt recalls. "He could read the New York Times, a whole page, then turn it upside down and recite it all from memory. That made me feel extraneous, irrelevant."
Suddenly, Haupt found hope.
Gingold had brought along a quarter-size violin for George to play. But George, for some reason, didn't take to it. Haupt did.
"I said, 'God delivered this situation into my hands," he says, wryly. "I have an opportunity here, of surviving George.' "
There, in the summer cottage, in a room with an upright piano and a coal-burning stove, Haupt played the violin for the first time. Gingold took notice.
"Suddenly, he wasn't smiling anymore," Haupt says. "He gave me a three-hour lesson."
Haupt goes out of his way not to bring talent into the picture. "It was pure survival," he shrugs.
"I enjoyed playing violin. It was fun," he adds. "If it gets you approval, and if you get attention for it, you like it."
This sweet/sour story is in a way typical of Haupt. For 37 years, he has been one of the orchestra's highest-profile members, but also one of the most contradictory.
As chief violinist, the concertmaster fills a crucial leadership role in the orchestra. He also plays a ceremonial role, walking out on stage to tune up the orchestra before the conductor emerges.
It's in the fulfillment of this public duty that Haupt has attracted wonder and puzzlement. He doesn't walk out on stage so much as slouch. Though his playing is generally exquisite, he can greet the spotlight with jarring indifference.
He can make you think of the bad kid with the attitude problem, the kind of guy who can be his own worst enemy. Asked about his behavior, Haupt doesn't try to be tactful.
"I don't like the preliminaries," he says, fidgeting. "I hate the PR. I hate the spin."
Vehemently, he adds: "I haven't talked to a reporter for years."
Most musicians have to agree to an interview sometime, though, and for Haupt, the time is now, when he is leaving the BPO. At 66, he has other things he'd like to concentrate on -- solo performances, chamber music, a new concert series he is launching March 29 at the Kavinoky Theatre.
His new beginning means, for the orchestra, the end of an era. The BPO recently named his successor, Michael Ludwig. It will be a big change.
"Charlie and I sat together for how many years? Figure it out," says Harry Taub, the orchestra's longtime associate concertmaster. "We didn't have a real personal relationship. But we had a good working association.
"Charlie played some very beautiful solos," adds Taub, who retired in 2003 after 51 years with the orchestra. "He played the Berg concerto, the Barber concerto, many other pieces, and he handled them beautifully."
BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta points out that Haupt helped anchor the orchestra during its years of financial crisis.
"His dedication to the BPO was extraordinary," she says. "He was faithful to the orchestra for some very tough times. He was a presence and a kind of stabilizing force.
"Executive directors come and go, and music directors come and go, but in tough times, musicians are the glue that holds the orchestra together."
>Nerves in New York
Haupt and his wife, Irene, a professional photographer, live in a warm, pretty apartment on Lafayette Avenue, filled with art and whimsical antiques. Irene Haupt, who comes from the Black Forest and speaks with a German accent, is always apologizing for it. "I can't stop buying at flea markets," she sighs.
The Haupts have a grown daughter, who lives in Florida. They seem strong-willed, evenly matched. "He lets me be independent," Irene Haupt says. "If I want to go to Germany, I go to Germany."
Up close, Haupt looks younger than he does from a distance. He's handsome, with a killer smile that he flashes, Jack Nicholson-like, from time to time.
There's something devilish about him. Mention you like spicy foods, such as the cocktail sauce his wife serves, and you get that killer smile.
"That's good," Haupt says, nodding approvingly.
Still, it's clear he's ill at ease with being interviewed. Luckily, his cats Schatzi and Missy are around to distract him.
Skittish around people, Haupt lavishes care on animals. He and his wife have turned their garage into what Irene Haupt calls "a B&B" for stray cats. Not long ago, they had an ailing cat called Puss-Boy, and Haupt would hook him up to an unwieldy, human-sized oxygen tank. "When he'd had enough, he'd free himself and walk away," Haupt says.
Quizzed about his career, Haupt is more guarded.
"Don't write this," he says frequently, even before telling an innocuous story.
>'Black eyes and bleeding chins'
Haupt's resume is as unique and offbeat as the man himself. After studying not only with Gingold but with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard, he went to Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship. He meant to study violin, but wound up studying composition instead, with Nadia Boulanger.
After a year as concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony, he moved to Buffalo in 1965 to join the Creative Associates, the guerrilla group that turned our town into a center of the avant-garde. In 1969, Lukas Foss, then music director of the BPO, hired him as concertmaster.
In '79, Haupt began a 21-year stint with the prestigious Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, and he is also on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music.
Haupt isn't exactly free with his opinions on the people he has known, but opinions can be dragged out of him.
About Boulanger, he says, "She wanted to control your life. She'd say, 'I don't like that sports jacket.' 'I don't like that haircut.' " Still, he adds, "She taught you how to look at what you were doing not through the eyes of tradition but through the eyes of reason."
BPO music directors have won his respect. About Max Valdes: "He was a born aristocrat who happened to be conducting." About Semyon Bychkov: "He had a natural authority, a true born leader. He was also incredibly bright."
One story Haupt tells of the Bychkov years shows his deep respect for music. When the BPO toured Europe, the musicians visited Milan, where they were joined by violinist Gidon Kremer. Haupt noticed a group of students spellbound.
"They had black eyes and bleeding chins, from practicing violin 10 hours a day," he says. "They looked underslept. They all sat there hollow-eyed, hollow-chested, with greasy hair, pale, funerary faces. Like something out of France in Bizet's time. They were lined up like starving pigeons, watching Kremer."
He clearly feels the same passion for his art.
"I happen to love music," he says. "I really feel good when I'm playing."
So good, in fact, that when it came to performing, he was never afraid. Well, hardly ever.
At 17, he played Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnol" with the New York Philharmonic.
"I was peeing my pants," he confesses. The orchestra's famous concertmaster, John Corigliano (the composer's father) tried to offer comfort. "Couragio," he told the young violinist. "I missed that," Haupt jokes, "because I didn't speak Italian."
On stage, though, everything came together. "My fingers just knew what to do," Haupt says.
They didn't shake? Haupt breaks into that attractive grin. "My fingers only shake when I'm stopped for a traffic ticket."
At the request of a News photographer, Haupt plays a few gypsyish bars on his violin, a well-loved instrument 150 years old. A request to smile, though, is going too far.
"I can't smile," he frets, slouched like a rock artist. "What am I, a cafe violinist?"
Haupt is a fine marksman and ruefully shows off a joking picture the San Antonio paper ran of him pointing a gun at the viewer. He shares his wife's interest in photography, even enjoying darkroom work.
He enjoys audaciousness.
He loves recalling the devil-may-care ways of Michael Tilson Thomas, who led the orchestra in the '70s. One performance, of a work by flutist Paula Robeson, stands out.
"As was often the case, we didn't rehearse much. It was not a great performance," Haupt says. When the piece ended, Thomas addressed the audience. "He said, 'We didn't have a great performance. We'd like to do it again.' "
The audience groaned, he says.
"Thomas said, 'Relax, folks, it doesn't take half as long as 'Bowling for Dollars.' "
Leftist tendencies also emerge as he discusses the travels he and his wife have taken.
"It's crazy. I shouldn't love Germany, but I do," says Haupt, who is Jewish. "I love Munich. It has such history. I would move there. I remember walking in Munich one day, and there was a silhouette of a human being, in bronze. A plaque said it was Kurt Eisner," he said, referring to the high-profile German communist.
"It was moving that they cared enough about him to memorialize him that way."
Haupt also adores Venice. "Although it has too many tourists, of whom I was one," he says.
Finally, he has come to like Buffalo, too, and plans to stay here. That could have a big effect on his future.
"Buffalo is not a spectator city," he says. "You have to do or die."
>Haupt launches 'Musical Feast' series
Charles Haupt is launching a concert series called "A Musical Feast," which will include performances by local artists and other performers he has enjoyed working with over the years. He plans to schedule three or four concerts a season.
The first concert takes place at 8 p.m. March 29 in the Kavinoky Theatre on the campus of D'Youville College. It will include music of Ysaye, Schoenberg, Britten, Dvorak, Arnold Bax and Mozart. Joining Haupt on stage will be violinist Charles Castleman, a professor at the Eastman School of Music; Jesse Levine, a professor of viola at Yale University and one of Haupt's close friends; pianist Claudia Hoca, and flutist and UB professor Cheryl Gobbetti Hoffman.
Admission is $25. For information, call 829-7668.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman