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Entertainment & the Arts | November 30, 2012

By ear

Entertainment & the Arts

Music from centuries past finds a devotee in blind Gordon College violinist

Albano Berberi (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Michael Monroe watched Albano Berberi tune a harpsichord that had languished in storage until the student's arrival at Gordon College. Berberi's passion for centuries old music and the instruments that produce it intrigued the professor. And Berberi's ability to navigate the labyrinthine innards of the arcane keyboard, despite being blind, inspired him.

Born with Leber Congenital Amarosis, Berberi, 22, has been blind from birth although he has some light and general color perception. And as is often the case when one sense is incapacitated, another over compensates for the loss.

Berberi's hearing is deftly acute. And it enables him to do things most people might think impossible for someone who cannot see. He is adept at playing video games, having discovered characters' actions have corresponding audio cues. But his ability to learn music by ear goes beyond the natural talent he shares with many musicians. His professors describe his ability as "intuitive."

Berberi transferred to Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., after a difficult semester at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., left him on academic probation at the end of 2009. Remembering Gordon's aggressive recruiting campaign, Berberi contacted the school at the end of the winter break. Five days later he was enrolled, and three days after arriving on campus, he received his audio books. His new roommate, also blind, knew the campus well and introduced Berberi to his new surroundings.

"I had a string of good luck that made me wonder if it was luck or divine intervention," Berberi said.

Berberi arrived at Gordon, an evangelical Christian college, in the spring of 2010 seeking a music performance degree. After coming to campus, Berberi "rediscovered Christianity" and now appreciates the role faith plays in campus life. It creates a sense of community he had not experienced anywhere else. Instructors, who understand music as a gift from God, encourage students to explore their musicality, finding the best way to give back to God what he has created. The artistic freedom in that ethos offered relief from the intense pressure he felt at Wheaton and has nurtured his lifelong affinity for music, Berberi said.

Although blind, Berberi has played a musical instrument longer than he can remember. When his family still lived in Albania, 6-month-old Berberi began playing the keyboard. It wasn't Mozart, but his father told him he played the notes sequentially. At 18 months, he reproduced the music demonstration tape that came with the keyboard.

When he was a year old, the family moved to Greece, where he continued playing keyboard until his kindergarten teacher decided to introduced him to another instrument. They first tried the recorder during a trip to a music conservatory. But he found it "rather boring," and the two continued their tour of the facility in search of an instrument to pique his interest. A musician taking a break from rehearsals handed the young boy his violin. The instrument, built for an adult not a 5-year-old, hardly nestled under his chin. But it proved a perfect fit.

"It can be the sweetest thing or angry," Berberi said. "It's just a very expressive instrument."

Berberi uses his musical talents to express what one professor called the "ambiguity and beauty of the art." In addition to his skills as a violinist, Berberi has a passion for the harpsichord. Gordon had three idle instruments before Berberi learned of their existence. As a result of a deal brokered with the music department, one now sits in Berberi's room in exchange for his skills in maintaining and tuning it.

The harpsichord, a precursor to the piano that rose and fell in popularity between 1450 and 1800, pairs nicely with the 200-year-old violin Berberi procured in a trade with a former professor. The antique gets its organic resonance from sheep-gut strings instead of the contemporary steel, he said.

Berberi's love of Baroque music makes sense of his appreciation for the older instruments and the sounds they produce. He reproduces that sound in the music he composes and records. One ensemble piece is a multi-track recording featuring Berberi performing all of the parts.

"If you had told me it was a piece by Haydn, I would have believed it," Monroe said recalling one of Berberi's compositions. Playing his own music as a soloist negates the necessity for a conductor, but performing with an orchestra requires direction Berberi cannot see. He depends on the rhythm of the music and the skill of violinists beside him to learn the music and anticipate the conductor's cues.

"I'm a conductor's worst nightmare because, I guess, I don't need them," he quipped.

But his goal as a musician does not depend on a conductor. Berberi hopes to share his passion for Baroque music and the instruments on which it was originally played. He dreams of creating a small ensemble to travel the world and introduce audiences to "historically informed performance."

Before he can step out onto the international stage, Berberi realizes he has some difficult lessons to learn. Following graduation in May, Berberi plans to attend a school for the blind to better prepare him for an independent life. After that, he hopes to move to one of the world's most challenging environments - New York City and The Juilliard School.

Berberi's violin instructor, Dr. Susan Kim, said he found his niche in the Baroque genre and it may be to his advantage when he applies to Juilliard. The music conservatory recently developed a post-graduate degree program in historically informed performance. As a Julliard graduate, Kim admits to having some anxiety for her student. The world-renowned school is hyper-competitive and "cut-throat."

No matter where Berberi ends up next, Kim hopes he finds a place to use his gift of music to bless others.

"I know God has a certain place in mind for him," she said.