It was just after touring with ultimate alt-rocker David Byrne that Douglas Harvey took his position as the principal cellist with the Austin Symphony Orchestra in 2002.
Harvey was just 22, he had bleached blond hair and he had spent a summer traveling the world with Byrne's "Grown Backwards" tour, playing cello with the Austin-based Tosca Strings, who were featured on Byrne's "Grown Backwards" album. (Harvey's also played with Ray Benson and Justin Timberlake.)
"My hair's been every color since," says Harvey, whose locks are now their natural brown. "I think sometimes people haven't recognized me onstage because my hair color changed so much."
This weekend, audiences will learn to recognize Harvey when he plays Richard Strauss' "Don Quixote," a sweeping piece for solo cello and symphony orchestra.
Orchestra conductor Peter Bay didn't appoint Harvey to the principal cello position, though, for the entertainment value of the San Antonio native's ever-changing hair. Bay hired Harvey because, as the conductor says, he was "very impressed with not only his technical prowess but also the emotional depth and maturity he brought to the music."
Actually, Bay had already invited Harvey to join the orchestra when the cellist was just 17 and a freshman at the University of Texas. Harvey is the youngest person in the ASO's nearly 100 years to have ever been awarded the principal cello position. And he was just 23 when he was a featured soloist with orchestra, playing on Austin composer Dan Welcher's "JFK: The Voice of Peace," an oratorio for orchestra and solo cello.
But, Harvey notes, being recognized for his precocious talents is becoming a thing of the past. Thankfully.
"I'm getting past getting over the age thing," says the now 30-year-old Harvey, taking a break at Dominican Joe coffee shop on a recent afternoon. (He's also the principal cellist for the Austin Lyric Opera Orchestra.)
He's not past Strauss' "Don Quixote," though. It's a piece he and Bay have been talking about for years.
"It's so epic," says Harvey of the multifaceted piece, which follows Cervantes' picaresque novel. "I love the imagination of it all, the musical imagery of windmills and the characters, the pizzicato, the long dialogue of the cello in the final variation."
In what would become something of a signature style, Strauss exhibits in "Don Quixote" his talents writing vivid instrumental music that deftly captures very definable characters. In "Don Quixote," the cello takes the part of the lead character, a misguided country man who imagines he's actually a knight.
Harvey started playing cello when he was in the fourth grade. His older sister played the sonorous string instrument, and Harvey "wanted to do everything she did but then beat her at it."
"She did teach me how to play vibrato, though," he says.
Harvey accelerated his music studies through high school before landing at UT, where he studied for four and a half years, though he never finished a degree.
Harvey performs on one of two 19th-century French cellos, including one made in 1860 that was commissioned by Napoleon III at about the same time the emperor held a competition to design the Paris Opera House.
In addition to his symphony gig, Harvey has a busy schedule as a chamber musician playing with Chamber Soloists of Austin, with the Salon Concerts series and the Austin Chamber Players. This summer, he'll head back to the Bear Valley Music Festival, where he's played in the symphony for the past few years.
It's not hard for Harvey, who lives just south of downtown, to notice that his concert nudges up to the South by Southwest Music Festival but nevertheless doesn't register when people think of the music that makes Austin the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World."
"I wish people would just remember what it is they like about live music and music in general — the melody and the rhythm and the sounds of the different instruments," he says.
Douglas Harvey and the Austin Symphony Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Long Center for the Performing Arts, 711 W. Riverside Drive