Late one Sunday afternoon in January a poised, pert seven-year-old named Cynthia Katchadourian walked briskly onto the stage of a university concert hall in Beirut. She curtsied and sat down before a highly polished Bluthner Grand piano. With two cushions under her and her toes barely reaching the pedals, she began to play Bach's Inventions. From the first note, as one critic wrote, "the audience—which a few minutes before had applauded only for her smile—was conquered. It sensed at once that it was in the presence of an exceptional talent ... Cynthia is one of those children who have something to say today. She says it with sound ... She is more than a revelation, she is a prodigy."
Since some purists insist that "prodigy" means a child who not only plays well but can compose, this critic's description of Cynthia might be a shade overblown. But to the enraptured audience in Beirut that winter afternoon there were few doubts that Cynthia, confidently rippling through 90 minutes of Beethoven, Daguin, Cramer and Mozart, was a remarkably gifted little girl. "If she wants to, if she truly wants to, and if she continues as she has begun," said one critic cautiously, "it's not unrealistic to think she could become one of the world's finest pianists."
Ten years ago any suggestion that an Arab country might field a world-famous concert pianist may have sounded faintly ludicrous. Despite an enduring tradition of indigenous music (Aramco World, January-February, 1966) no Middle Eastern city has yet threatened the reputations of Vienna or Paris as centers of classical music.
Not that the Middle East lacks talent. Syria has at least one violinist who could make it to Lincoln Center tomorrow. Jordan has a pianist of similar caliber. Cairo has a half dozen composers of note, including several working with contemporary "electronic" and "concrete" music forms. In Lebanon there are a number of outstanding pianists. Among them are Henri Goraieb, known throughout Europe; Walid Howrani and Walid Akel, two young men who are building impressive reputations in Moscow and Paris; Myrna Majdalani Khaouam and Samia Haddad Flamant, both exceptional women; and even some younger talent. One is 15-year-old Billy Eidy of International College, another 12-year-old Avo Kouyoumjian. There is also Diana Taky Deen who grew up in the Philippines and Lebanon, studied in Paris, Rome, Siena, Salzburg and New York, and has given concerts in London, Washington, Berlin, Rome and Stockholm. She has appeared in 15 countries of East and West Europe, eight Arab countries, in West Africa and in South America.
But about ten years ago something seems to have happened to music in the Middle East. Damascus founded a conservatory of music. Cairo organized a symphony orchestra. Lebanon's Baalbek Festival began to draw leading international musicians. At the same time a group called Les Jeunesses Musicales was founded in Beirut with the aim of encouraging musical appreciation among the young.
Apparently they are succeeding. Between 1960 and 1970, for example, Beirut music stores sold an impressive $2 million worth of pianos. In the last five years, one source estimates, pianos have been selling at the rate of over 350 a year. "It seemed as if music lessons suddenly became more than the expected course for properly-brought-up young ladies," said one teacher. "People really wanted to know music."
Much of the credit for this "local renaissance," as one teacher describes it, goes to Beirut's large, music-minded Armenian community. During and after World War I, Armenians, fleeing from Turkey, poured into Lebanon, bringing with them their rich legacy of folk and church music. Shortly thereafter the National Conservatory of Music was founded, and not too many years later, the Lebanese Academy of Music, from which has come a number of gifted composers and the best among Beirut's estimated 200 piano teachers.
Cynthia's teacher is Sona Aharonian, who graduated in 1939 from the Music Institute at the American University of Beirut, and, with two other pianists and a singer, caught the first peacetime passenger ship sailing for America after World War II. "We were the first Lebanese to go to the States to study music," Mrs. Aharonian says. "Previously everyone had gone to France or Italy."
In America Mrs. Aharonian studied for two years at Yale, commuting two nights a week to attend classes at New York's Juilliard School of Music. At Yale she specialized in the special psychology of teaching children. "I teach the art as well as the instrument," she says. "I teach appreciation more than piano."
In 1949 Mrs. Aharonian opened her own small school of music, in which she offers a six-year program. Among her hundreds of pupils since then, four, she feels, can be considered truly outstanding musicians: Walid Howrani; Raffi Ourganian, now perhaps the most outstanding organist in France; and Norai Artinian, who won first prize in both piano and composition at the Montreal Conservatory and is now attending Juilliard on full scholarship. The fourth is Cynthia Katchadourian.
Until Cynthia came along Mrs. Aharonian never accepted pupils younger than six. "But although Cynthia was only four, her mother, who had studied music for 15 years herself, convinced me that I should give her a try." Before she was two, it seems, Cynthia had learned both the words and music of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.
At four, then, Cynthia began to take lessons. She completed Mrs. Aharonian's program in half the usual time. "Cynthia has a love of music," Mrs. Aharonian says. "And she's very intelligent."
Whether she can—or ought to—compete in the demanding world of concert music is, of course, a serious question that her parents must eventually face. This fall Cynthia and her family will be moving to Chicago where her father, a doctor and professor of biochemistry, is going to spend two years at Northwestern University's Children's Memorial Hospital. In that time Cynthia and her parents will probably make the crucial decision. She will continue to study, but right now, said her mother, it is too soon to say more.
In the meantime, Cynthia leads the busy life of what, in cosmopolitan Beirut, is a normal second-grader's day: school from 8 to 4, homework—in Arabic, English and Armenian—from 5 to 6, then supper and bed by 9:30. She loves riddles, is quite at home in a nearby playground and constantly pesters her father for stories. "We're delighted that she is so relaxed about all this," said her mother. "And she's not self-conscious. The day of her concert, do you know what she did? She came home, telephoned a few friends, then sat down and did her homework." Bravo, Cynthia.
William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World Magazine.