The violinist Stefan Arzberger had planned to play the music of Beethoven, Haydn and Mendelssohn with his colleagues in the Leipzig String Quartet later this month at Wigmore Hall in London, where he fondly recalls once sipping sherry with patrons after a concert.
Instead he finds himself facing a charge of attempted murder in New York City, accused of barging naked into the room of a 64-year-old woman at a Midtown hotel he was staying in while on tour this spring and trying to strangle her. His defense is hardly less lurid: His lawyers say he was drugged by a prostitute he had brought to his room earlier that night.
In his first extended English-language interview since his arrest, Mr. Arzberger — who has received support from a number of musicians, including Kurt Masur, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic, who conducted him in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra — said he did not remember what happened in the early morning hours of March 27, when the attack took place, according to a criminal complaint.
“I spend my time now investigating what happened that night, to find out — because I have no memories,” Mr. Arzberger, 42, who is out on $100,000 bail, said the other day over lunch. “This is something I never had in my life, something like this. No memories at all.”
Now, he faces criminal charges of attempted murder, burglary, strangulation and assault, and a civil suit from the woman.
The woman he is accused of choking, Pamela Robinson, of Asheville, N.C., describes a harrowing ordeal in the civil suit she filed seeking damages from Mr. Arzberger. Her lawsuit says that she answered the door of her room at the Hudson Hotel near Columbus Circle around 8 a.m. on March 27 and was confronted by Mr. Arzberger, who was “completely naked” and who pushed his way into her room, seized her by the throat and “violently shook her and threw her around, bashing her head into the walls and shelves of the hotel room closet.” It goes on to say that she was saved by hotel employees who entered her room and pulled him off her.
Mr. Arzberger declined to speak about what happened the night in question. In a court filing, prosecutors said that he had told the police after his arrest that he had visited a couple of bars and been awakened that morning by “the sound of a woman screaming for help” and had tried to comfort her but did not remember being in her room. His defense lawyers said they believed that he was drugged earlier that morning by a prostitute he had brought to his hotel room, who they later discovered was a man. A criminal complaint was subsequently filed accusing a 34-year-old man of stealing three German credit cards from Mr. Arzberger’s hotel earlier that night, but it did not name the victim of the theft.
Prosecutors have said in court that there was no evidence that Mr. Arzberger had been drugged. But one of his lawyers, Nicholas G. Kaizer, said: “The evidence will show that Arzberger was unquestionably the victim of a crime in the hours preceding the assault on this woman.” He continued, “The evidence also will show that there’s no other explanation, other than his being drugged, involuntarily drugged, for this conduct.”
Arriving for lunch at a restaurant north of Madison Square Park the other day, near the office of a forensic psychiatrist he has engaged to help with his defense, Mr. Arzberger was carrying his violin, a backpack and the suitcase he has been living out of while staying with friends. He said he had come to the United States with the Leipzig Quartet on March 20 for what was supposed to be a brief tour, including a concert at the Library of Congress, which he played, and another at the Harvard Club, which he missed because he was in police custody.
Mr. Arzberger spoke of his musical career; his loneliness in the United States since his passport was seized, preventing him from returning home to his wife; and his fears that his inability to rejoin the Leipzig String Quartet, which was founded in 1988 and plays more than 100 concerts a year, will hurt his colleagues. The quartet has found other violinists to fill in for him, but some presenters are beginning to cancel the group’s concerts, including Wigmore Hall in London, which discreetly announced that its June 27 concert had been canceled “due to unforeseen circumstances.”
“You’re alone, and you get more and more alone,” he said, in accented English. Mr. Arzberger said he was preparing to sell one of his violins — a Lavazza made in Milan in 1725 — to help cover his mounting legal fees.
Ms. Robinson declined an interview request through her lawyer. But her lawsuit says that she has suffered “pain, shock and mental anguish” because of the attack and that “these injuries and their effects will be permanent.”
Mr. Arzberger said that he was grateful to all the musicians who have stood by him. Some are planning a concert for his benefit in Leipzig; others have donated to his defense fund; and some, including Mr. Masur, have written testimonials to his character.
“I hope he can be released as soon as possible to return and fulfill his duties as a leading musician and a member of his string quartet,” Mr. Masur wrote.
Mr. Arzberger said that he had been dismayed by how he has been portrayed in the media coverage his case has received. “I could be a rock musician or something like that — destroying hotel rooms, or taking drugs or excessive alcohol,” he said. “No, it’s different.”
Both Mr. Arzberger and the string quartet have taken to social media in his defense. After the arrest, the quartet, which is continuing to support him, wrote a brief post on its Facebook page that described Mr. Arzberger as “the victim of a crime” and ended, “Stefan, we are with you!”
The post upset some people, including one who wrote in a comment: “No mention of the actual victim? A woman was seriously assaulted by your Stefan. I am definitely NOT with him!”
Now Mr. Arzberger, who said that it had been a struggle to learn the American criminal justice system and its vocabulary, is preparing for his next court date, Thursday in State Supreme Court. As he left the lunch, he said he was really hoping to find some musicians to play with.
The NY Times/June 12, 2015