Music and Vision homepage Classical Music Programme Notes for concerts and recordings, by Malcolm Miller


<<  -- 2 --  Jennifer I Paull    CATHY BERBERIAN: LEGACY


In the 21st century, we are totally unaware of the outrageousness of both The Beatles in the early 1960s and Cathy Berberian's daring in making their music (amongst others) into sketches of caricatures within picture frames. She shocked a stiff, formal, intellectual public into awareness of how the other (rather more than) half lived. She was a famous 'classical' performer and one didn't mix chalk and cheese in those days. There were no web sites of a Bryn Terfel offering downloadable videos of a superb artist caressing the melody of Shenandoah with perfect skill. Intellectual seriousness was one thing and popular music was another; 'ne'er the twain shall meet', was missing from Cathy's vocabulary (all tongues).

'Conventional' was not applicable to her in any way, shape or form and that applied equally to her eclectically rich education. She remained fascinated by languages and folk music her life long. As Leonard Bernstein pointed out, the in-built rhythm of language is the DNA of its folk music. (I paraphrase a little, as DNA had not been yet been discovered.) Acting, dance (all genres), costume design, mime, music hall, cinema and humour were to be studied and ingested. In this way, Cathy Berberian laid the solid foundations of her future, inexhaustible storehouse of inspiration and seemingly effortless performance. 'She had a incredible stage presence.' -- Luciano Berio, Music is The Air I Breathe -- Dutch TV documentary.

Often devouring two books daily, Cathy was fascinated by all the colours and flavours she unearthed in her insatiable curiosity for detail. Here was an artist who was quintessentially 'different': the rebel, the unique, the special, the one and only who could. She was script-writer/director and choreographer of her recital 'scenarios', which were ad lib-ed and tailor-made to fit her audience's reactions on the night. The beautiful hand movements of Armenian Dance (Cathy shone in a well-known troupe in her youth) remained one constant ingredient of the scenic variety she grafted upon her musical diversity. Cathy Berberian gave her audience a 'show'. They were entertained and they were educated.

Much of her creation was inexactly credited to those who labelled her improvisatory singing skills as entirely their own compositions, appending their names and conveniently forgetting hers. The woman's role was secondary in society, in marriage and in rights. Were Cathy to be alive today, I very much doubt that she would meekly endure the general lack of appreciation for, and unawareness of her due standing as the artistic giant she undoubtedly was, for many years.

Proudly exhibited to sing Ramona when a precocious two-year-old, and as her father's ventriloquist 'dummy' just a few years later at regular, family gatherings, she inherited his love of stage performance and vaudeville. It proved an excellent apprenticeship.

As well as that of her family's native Armenian culture, Cathy took lessons in Hindu dance. She absorbed styles and skills like blotting paper. A newly discovered parallel thought, gesture or interpretational logic could always enrich her performances, which became the wealthier for her general knowledge and increased awareness.

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Copyright © 30 October 2005 Jennifer I Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland


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