Wherever Matt Haimovitz goes, important people keep giving him things. Big things. Marta Casals Istomin, the widow of cellist Pablo Casals, gave him the use of her husband's cello. Executives at Deutsche Grammophon gave him an exclusive recording contract, making him the youngest artist ever signed by that company. And violinist Itzhak Perlman, one of Haimovitz's idols, invited the then 11-year-old musical prodigy to his place in 1982 for advice offered over a spaghetti dinner. "He cooked it himself," says Haimovitz. "He was interested in me cellistically."

It's no wonder. Haimovitz, a 16-year-old junior at Manhattan's Collegiate School, was born with a gift even greater than those he has received since. When he solos with such orchestras as the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony—as he does about a dozen times a year—audiences are rapt and critics lapse into superlatives. "His musical maturity is quite phenomenal," Perlman has said. "His talent is very deep."

Haimovitz's mother, Marlena, a classically trained pianist, noticed her son's affinities when, at 3, "he'd sit attentively at concerts and not say, 'I'm tired, let's go.' " The family left Tel Aviv, where Matt was born, for Palo Alto, Calif., when he was 4. Two years later the future soloist, struck by the genius of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, begged his mother for lessons. Perlman heard Haimovitz's playing by chance at a 1982 master class and arranged for him to study with Juilliard School master Leonard Rose. Haimovitz debuted in New York in 1984, playing with Rose and one of his most famous pupils, Yo-Yo Ma. Since Rose's death later that year, Haimovitz has been studying with Ma.

Haimovitz practices four hours a day. "I think more would be a little painful on the fingers," he says. But he still finds time for your average interests. He plays a mean game of tennis, quotes Eddie Murphy and grins when asked about girls. "Sure, I like a good-looking girl—blond, hair, cute, smart," he says. "Well, pretty smart. She doesn't have to be too smart."

Only rarely does being a teenage phenomenon get to be a drag. "Once during final exams, I got back from the last concert of a series at 8 p.m. and had to write a six-page math paper," says Haimovitz. "I'd rather have watched the baseball game on TV. But I guess if you're going to live this life-style, you've got to learn how to switch gears."