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A clean start for violinist Stewart Kitts

No single thing was more important to Stewart Kitts than his violin. Built around 1850 by the French violinmaker George Chanot, it was worth as much as $100,000, Kitts figured. He got it as a brilliant teenage violinist and had played it ever since. Kitts was associate concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra for 22 years, and if you ever saw him striding out to lead the musicians, you saw him cradling the gleaming brown Chanot. But when Kitts met crack cocaine, he found a new favorite. This one beat out even his three children. It certainly beat the violin. So one day in 2005, Kitts and his violin went through the front door of Value Pawn, a squat white building on a drab stretch of check-cashing places, used car lots and muffler shops on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa. "We buy broken gold,'' reads the sign out front. He hocked it for $1,000 to pay off an insistent dealer and buy more drugs. For more than a month, the violin was at the pawnshop, an exotic item amid the power tools, TV sets, bicycles and jewelry. Sometimes Kitts would come by and play it in the store. His mother and sister would phone the manager and beg him not to sell it.

The market for 19th century French violins was not exactly booming in that part of town, so it waited there for Kitts.

"I got it out of hock the day I was arrested,'' Kitts says. "I was playing it for hours in a hotel room with tears streaming down my face.''

• • •

Soon after he put the violin down, Kitts was arrested for the fifth time in the year since he'd started smoking crack. For every arrest, the most serious for possessing cocaine with intent to sell, a new mug shot was taken. Kitts looked more destroyed each time, the eyes blanker, the lines deeper.

He landed in the Falkenburg Road Jail for 81 days.

That's about the time when Kitts — and those awful mug shots — made the newspaper. He refused to be interviewed, but his police record, his lawyer, and worried friends and family told the sad story of his addiction, some saying they hoped it would help him realize how far he had fallen.

Today, Kitts says he already knew. "When I went to jail, I was grateful. It pretty much saved my life.''

Three years after getting out, he contacted this reporter, whose calls he had refused.

"When you Google my name, what comes up is 'Lost gift,' '' Kitts says, referring to the headline. Now, at 49, he's in recovery and trying to rebuild his career.

"I want people to know I'm found.''

• • •

Classical musicians with drug problems are not unheard of. In 2003, a violinist in the Oregon Symphony died of a heroin overdose. Michael Rabin, a star violinist of the 1950s, was hooked on barbiturates and died in a drug-related accident. Eugene Fodor, the first American to win the Tchaikovsky violin competition, had his career ruined by cocaine before he made a clean and sober comeback.

Kitts has an impressive musical pedigree. His violinist mother and bassoonist father were members of the Indianapolis and Jacksonville symphony orchestras, and his four younger sisters are also professional musicians. (His parents are long divorced.)

As a boy, he would practice three hours a day during the week and five hours a day on weekends. He took lessons on a Bach partita with the hallowed pedagogue Ivan Galamian at the Meadowmount School of Music, a famous summer camp in the Adirondacks.

"He has some of the fastest hands on the fiddle God ever handed anyone,'' says Ronald Zapen, assistant conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony in the 1970s, when Kitts was a 14-year-old wunderkind in the orchestra. "He's awe-inspiring.''

Kitts studied under eminent violin teacher James Buswell at the prestigious school of music at Indiana University. He left during his senior year to pursue an orchestra career, first in Jacksonville, then with the Savannah Symphony, before becoming associate concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra.

While other violinists spend countless hours in the practice room, Kitts prides himself on being a quick study. He would often arrive for a rehearsal or concert just a few minutes before the conductor's downbeat. He relished the challenge of sight reading even difficult works like a Mahler symphony.

With the Florida Orchestra, Kitts was known as a talented but somewhat erratic player, capable of fine musicmaking but lacking the discipline of a truly great violinist. He was popular, running the musicians' weekly poker game, and played in a string quartet with other orchestra members. If he did not live up to his youthful promise, just having a principal position in a symphony orchestra put him in the elite of American musicians.

• • •

He was married to another violinist in the orchestra, and the couple had three children. But their marriage fell apart. The children lived with his ex-wife, and though Kitts saw them often, he missed them badly.

In 2004, divorced and adrift, living alone for the first time in almost 20 years, he felt lost.

His work was not much consolation. As the longtime associate concertmaster, his moments in the spotlight came only when he sat in for the concertmaster. The last time he auditioned for the top job, it had gone to a younger violinist.

One night Kitts went to a party in his Tampa neighborhood and met a pretty blond named Angel.

He fell for her. Then he fell for her addiction.

A few months after meeting Angel Barcelo, Kitts smoked crack for the first time. He was in love and wanted to get high with her.

Kitts had the week off work. The couple checked into a ritzy Tampa hotel, locked the door and got loaded on crack.

"They call it taking a blast, because it just blasts you off,'' he says. "It's a major, major rush over your body, and you get really high. It can make you drop to your knees.''

Within a couple of weeks, Kitts could not get back up. The orchestra eventually fired him. He sold his Tampa house and blew the money on drugs. The couple wound up living in a seedy hotel room.

"There are certain paths you choose and you know you can't come back,'' he says of his drug-fueled summer.

"The first time you try crack, you can't take that away.''

That fall, Kitts was set to occupy the first chair in the violin section, if only temporarily, while the Florida Orchestra conducted auditions for a new concertmaster. But he missed the first major concert of the season.

Not that he was of much use when he did turn up. "I was constantly nodding off."

Once a dashing figure, Kitts was now gaunt, sweaty and weirdly animated, sometimes weeping as he played. Orchestra managers and music director Stefan Sanderling tried to help. Sanderling even arranged an intervention during a rehearsal at the Mahaffey Theater, with the violinist's mother and sister present. In the conductor's dressing room, they pleaded with him to go into rehab. Sanderling promised to hold his job open.

Later, Tampa businessman Ray Murray, former chairman of the orchestra board and steadfast supporter of Kitts, got him and Barcelo into a treatment program. But they didn't show up.

"I refused to admit that I had a problem,'' Kitts says. "When you're under the effects of cocaine, everything seems to be okay, or even better than okay. But it's not.''

By January 2005 he was fired for missing rehearsals and performances.

• • •

At the nadir of his addiction, Kitts would smoke crack for days without sleeping, then crash in toxic exhaustion.

"The craving is horrible,'' he says. "It would cost me about $700 for a three-day binge.''

As a crackhead, Kitts stole food. He hung out with drug dealers. He played violin while getting high with them.

Kitts tells his story with the woman who introduced him to crack by his side. Of the two, Barcelo is more frank about addiction.

"The main reason anyone I've ever known has started using crack or continues to use it is for sexual pleasure,'' she says. Kitts protests, fearing someone might be tempted to try the drug. Then he agrees with her.

"We had lots of sex,'' he says. "There were all sorts of rituals and games that we played.''

"Well, we're not playing those anymore,'' Barcelo primly adds.

Barcelo, 35, who says she got into crack after being hooked on prescription drugs, recounts hitting bottom with brutal clarity.

"At my worst moment, I had 10 cents in my pocket because I had been high for seven days,'' she says. "I had no place to sleep, no place to go. I hadn't eaten in seven days because I had been high. I went into a convenience store and said, 'Look, this is all I have, 10 cents. Can I get something to eat?' The guy at the counter gave me a hot dog bun. I slept in the grass behind a building.''

She says she tried to hide her habit from Kitts, that she never wanted him to try it. But the two now agree it was inevitable.

"When I met Angel, I knew that she was a good person but that she was extremely depressed,'' he says. "I felt I had to bring myself down to bring her up.''

"He dove into my life,'' Barcelo says.

"I dove in and almost drowned,'' he says.

• • •

In the fall of 2006 — about a year after his release from jail — Kitts and Barcelo had run out of options. They were holed up in a hotel room in Tampa, smoking crack, dodging arrest warrants for his missed court date and her probation violation. They were living on money wired by his mother, who tried to believe them when they said they were in recovery.

Finally, Barcelo confessed to Mrs. Kitts, whose son couldn't bring himself to admit how he'd lied. "It was as though I was stabbing her in the heart,'' Barcelo recalls.

That was the turning point, the couple say. Kitts' mother paid for them to move from Tampa to Gainesville.

"We had to get away from all the bad memories and associations of our life in Tampa,'' he says. "It was my mom's love that pulled us out of the pit.''

He and Barcelo say they are in recovery together, each other's greatest support. They appreciate 12-step programs, and show off their Narcotics Anonymous key chains marking 18 months of sobriety.

But they don't hold with the anonymity requirement, because NA isn't how they got clean.

"We did not go to NA until we'd already been clean for nine months,'' says Kitts, who is on probation. "But once we went, it was good and we learned things. There are people in NA who have been clean for nine years, 12 years, 14 years, and they still have problems. I need a check like that. It keeps me from getting too cocky. I have a problem with overconfidence at times.''

• • •

Sonnhild Kitts, 75, is a respected violin teacher, founder and director of the Gainesville Suzuki Players. She has spent all she has to rescue her son and his girlfriend. "Thousands of dollars,'' she says. "I'm 100 percent broke.''

But she has risked more than her money and her love to save her son. He is a gifted violin teacher, but she worried about having him involved with her students after the drug arrests. So were parents.

"Gainesville is a small town,'' says Charlene Krueger, president of the board of the Gainesville Suzuki Players. "Everybody knew about Stewart and didn't want him in their homes.''

Krueger thought her 13-year-old, Michael, might benefit from having a male violin teacher who knew as much about video games and basketball as Mozart and Beethoven.

Still, "I was shaking when I picked him up that first time,'' says Krueger, who drove the violinist to her house because he didn't have a car. At the lesson, Kitts told Michael he had lost his career and his family to drugs. He showed him the photo of his children, which he keeps in his violin case.

"It has turned out to be the most wonderful thing for Michael and the Suzuki Players,'' Krueger says. "Michael calls him his musical father.''

Krueger gave him a car and cell phone in exchange for lessons. The mother of a student put up bond money for Kitts when he turned himself in to settle the warrant for his arrest.

Kitts gives lessons several days a week and coaches a youth orchestra in Gainesville. He and Barcelo share a one-bedroom apartment and shop at thrift stores. They hope to get married on the second anniversary of their getting clean, Oct. 8.

But this new life can be rough on Barcelo. She has a felony record and fears that she won't be able to find a job.

She has been snubbed.

"I went to a concert with Stewart and I was holding his arm, and one of the teachers started shaking her head in dismay that I was there with him,'' she says.

"People say I'm the one who got Stewart addicted and I'm not any good for him.''

• • •

This past spring, Kitts played concertmaster with the 11-piece string section hired for pop singer Anne Murray's Southeast tour. It was his best-paying gig since he got clean: $5,000 for 18 shows. On hits like Snowbird and Danny's Song, the violin parts are simple melodies or pages of whole notes.

"I sometimes feel guilty because the parts are so easy and Stewart is such a great player,'' says Steve Sexton, Murray's music director.

But Kitts gives the music his all, beaming and bobbing his head while performing a high violin passage in Nobody Loves Me Like You Do.

"It's easy, but every note still has to be beautiful,'' he says.

In Fort Myers, the Murray string section included Kitts' ex-wife, Sandy. He asked her to take the place of an ill violinist, a common courtesy among musicians, who are always looking to make a little extra money.

Sandy Kitts watched her children's father unravel, then disappear from their lives. Now, he says, their relationship is better, and he is at last contributing some child support. His ex-wife didn't reply to a request for an interview.

"The emotional pain and suffering I put them through can never be repaid,'' he says, sobbing. "Financially, Sandy has had to go through some very hard times.''

Kevin Kitts, 8, recently spent two days in Gainesville with his dad, who also speaks with pride of daughters Natalie, 15, and Elizabeth, 17, both violinists.

Then he thinks of how his downfall affected them. "You can imagine them going to youth orchestra and always being proud that their father was associate concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra,'' he says. "And then, all of a sudden, they're going to youth orchestra and their dad is a crack addict.''

• • •

Zapen, Kitts' old colleague in Jacksonville, was the first orchestra conductor to give the violinist a chance in recovery.

"He had a bad stretch in his life,'' says Zapen, now music director of the Hollywood Philharmonic. "What's past is past. Just be on time, I told him. He has been a dream.''

Kitts, scheduled to play with the Hollywood orchestra in pops concerts today and Friday, has put 40,000 miles on his '94 Toyota Celica driving to gigs. He has played with the Brevard Symphony in Melbourne, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra and the Treasure Coast Opera and Atlantic Classical Orchestra, both in Fort Pierce.

He played in the pit for a Camelot tour. He was concertmaster for The Nutcracker at Ruth Eckerd Hall. He played for Smokey Robinson, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Clay Aiken, Mannheim Steamroller and Bernadette Peters.

• • •

At the end of May, almost four years to the day since he started to smoke crack, Kitts auditioned for the Naples Philharmonic.

He loves teaching and enjoys the freelance work. But he misses the big symphonic works, music only the best ensembles perform.

The audition list was deeply familiar to Kitts: excerpts from standard repertoire by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev. He felt confident. But only about the music.

"Part of this job is a drug test and background check,'' he says while driving on I-75 to the audition. "My playing doesn't worry me. But the background check will show what happened to me.''

During the Naples audition, he missed a rhythm in a Brahms symphony. He didn't make it out of the first round.

"I didn't play 100 percent my best, but I didn't crash and burn either,'' he says later. "It's a big rebound from smoking crack, that's for sure. It means I still have work to do.''

What concerned him more than the Brahms flub was a post-audition nightmare, a flashback to a life at once distant and near.

"I had a really bad dream about using,'' he says. "It was the first drug dream I've had in months. I woke up and immediately woke up Angel and told her.

"I'm not worrying about a relapse just because I had one in a dream. That doesn't mean it's going to happen in real life.''

Addiction experts say the odds are stacked against crack addicts in recovery, especially those without a structured program and support group. Kitts isn't buying it.

"I'm convinced that I will never relapse,'' he says. "I believe it with every fiber of my being.''

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

A clean start for violinist Stewart Kitts 06/27/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 10:17pm]
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