Music might be the universal language, but the sounds of certain instruments have always evoked specific places. The rumbling moan of bagpipes puts listeners in a Scottish state of mind. Dulcet banjo tones let us almost feel the Mississippi mud between our toes. And the resonant, shimmering sound of the cimbalom brings to mind the picturesque plains, peaks, and rivers of Hungary.

Never heard of that last one? You may be surprised to learn that North Carolina’s increasingly eclectic classical music community boasts an internationally recognized cimbalom player among its ranks. Petra Berényi, formerly of Scottsdale, Az., and  Budapest, Hungary, has brought her considerable talents on both cimbalom and viola to the Triangle. Berényi has performed on Hungary’s national instrument all over the world, from London’s 2002 Kurtág Festival, a celebration of leading contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág, to concerts with the Chapel Hill Philharmonia in 2005. Berényi will also perform two concerts in September on cimbalom: with the North Carolina Symphony on September 13 and with Mallarmé Chamber Players violinist Jennifer Curtis in Durham on September 23.

Berényi keeps her cimbalom at the bucolic Carrboro home of one of her young students, whose parents allow her to store the large instrument in their home. Berényi is a petite 29-year-old with a bashful but easy smile and a gentle Hungarian accent. She showed me her instrument recently between rehearsals for a North Carolina Symphony pops concert in Cary and a wedding at which she’s scheduled to perform — both gigs on viola, the other instrument the internationally recognized performer mastered at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music. Along with frequent performances around the Triangle, Berényi maintains a private studio of young violin and viola students. 

The most basic way to describe the cimbalom is to relate it to a possible successor of its construction, the piano: A pianist creates sound by pressing a key, which causes a hammer within the instrument to strike a string. A cimbalom player uses long, thin mallets with felt- or leather-covered tips to produce sound by striking the crisscrossing strings directly. With the striking instrument in the hands of the player and the strings laid bare above the trapezoidal wooden sound board, the cimbalom’s tone maintains an echo of the piano’s resonance at its core, combined with a more acute articulation. The cimbalom’s pedals can dampen notes to brief, percussive sounds; undampened, the fading tones of a chord create an otherworldly wash of sound as the metallic articulation and full initial tone give way to the shimmering of the strings.

This oddly divine sounding instrument is the largest member of the hammered dulcimer family. The cimbalom’s waist-high wooden soundboard rests on four thick wooden legs; with its cover on, it looks more like a piece of furniture featured on Antiques Roadshow than a musical instrument. Though its name is unfamiliar to many non-Hungarians, relatives of the instrument are staples in the folk music of several European and Asian cultures as well as that of certain regions of the United States. It might not be as ubiquitous as, say, the piano to Western classical music, but in Hungary in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this trapezoid-shaped dulcimer-with-legs outsold pianos. Its haunting tone has captivated the ears of iconic composers like Igor Stravinsky, Zoltán Kodály, and Pierre Boulez; in 2002, Howard Shore used cimbalom to represent the ghastly but sympathetic character Gollum in his score for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Despite the size of her chosen instrument, Berényi’s lifelong passion for the cimbalom began serendipitously when she was only six years old. As a kindergartener, Berényi attended additional music classes for children that taught basics like ear training and music theory. After the first year, the instructor recommended an instrument for each student to study. Berényi remembered the day her relationship with cimbalom began. “[My teacher] told me, ‘Well, maybe you should play cimbalom, because you are left handed and you won’t be a good string player,’” she said, “which is kind of ridiculous, because actually, I’m not left handed.” (She writes with her left and uses her right for everything else.)

Even more impressive is the aptitude and dedication to the cimbalom Berényi displayed at such a young age. “In Hungary, they celebrate a name day, not only birthday, name day, too — and my name is [celebrated on] October second,” she explained.  “My parents asked me, ‘What would you like as a present for your name day?’ and I said ‘Nothing, collect some money and buy me a cimbalom for my birthday in February,’ and they were surprised.”

While Berényi flourished on the instrument, that teacher of hers was only half right: At the age of 10, Berényi added violin lessons to her cimbalom studies, music classes, and regular school. Her 2003 master’s degree in viola from the Liszt Academy and her many professional credits on viola — with the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra; associate principal with the Musica Nova Symphony Orchestra in Scottsdale; principal and co-principal three years in a row at the Colorado College Music Festival; her current gig as primary substitute viola for the North Carolina Symphony — reflect a demand for her talents. She also earned a Bachelor’s Degree in cimbalom (the highest degree offered for the instrument) from the Liszt Academy in 2000.

As she progressed, Berényi’s enthusiasm and talent was bolstered by more than formal instruction. “I loved [cimbalom], and I was inspired by other, mostly gypsy, kids,” she said, “because in Hungary most of the gypsy kids are playing either violin or cimbalom. No cello, no piano; violin or cimbalom. They are amazing, gypsy kids.” In Hungary, Roma children absorb folk music as family tradition practically from birth. Although the folk and classical styles of cimbalom playing differ, from hand position on the mallets to repertoire, performers today, including Berényi, aren’t afraid to mix styles to get a better sound or play with greater agility. “[Folk and classical players] use totally different techniques, but I really like that,” she said. “I picked up how to hold the mallets from gypsy guys because they have amazing technique.”

When it comes to music, Berényi is appropriately obsessed for a professional multi-instrumentalist. Rather than listening to classical music or carefree popular music for fun, her mind focuses instead on the repertoire she is preparing. “Apart from real practicing,” she explained, “in your head, you’re always practicing, even if you don’t hold the instrument in your hand. But it’s always in your mind, and that’s very valuable practicing, so when I’m practicing, I don’t wish to listen to [other music]. Even if I don’t practice — real practice — it’s there, [the music is] still there.”

As for pop music, Berényi cheerfully admits her ignorance: “My friends tell me group names, famous names, and I just look at them like a spaceman from Mars, like ‘What are you talking about?’”

Of course, she still has her favorites: Fellow Hungarian Ildikó Vékony is her top cimbalom player, and she lists brothers László Sáry and József Sári, as well as Zoltán Jeney and Barnabás Dukay among composers she admires. However, the composer whose music has had the most profound impact on her artistic outlook is the aforementioned György Kurtág, who, in addition to writing many great contemporary works for cimbalom, was a close friend of Berényi’s late father, painter Ferenc Berényi. Transcriptions of works by J.S. Bach, Thomas Tallis, and Franz Joseph Haydn populate her résumé, but contemporary pieces for cimbalom are still some of Berényi’s favorites. Despite her reputation and talent on cimbalom, Berényi hasn’t been able to perform publicly on the instrument as often as she would like since moving to the States in 2003. “This is the biggest type [of hammered dulcimer],” she said. “Most of them are portable, easy, small, but this one is two hundred pounds. It’s kind of difficult to transport.”

Although the player of an unwieldy instrument like piano or organ can always count on her venue providing a suitable instrument, the cimbalom is far too rare in this part of the world for Berényi to be able to depend on the use of an instrument on-site at music schools or summer festivals. The logistics of taking apart and moving her 200-pound instrument, a task for which, in Hungary, venue organizers usually arrange movers, have foiled some potential lecture and performance opportunities. Still, Berényi is open to sharing the cimbalom with local audiences; she’s very excited about her September performances in Cary and Durham and expressed interest in exploring the cimbalom’s American analogue, the hammered dulcimer.

“I would love to, but since in Hungary we have all these different types of cimbalom, I have never had a chance to meet with other kind of similar instruments…I’m open for everything,” she said, adding with a laugh, “but not pop.”