Cimbalom strings up close

For the astute musician, it’s an extended hammered dulcimer. For the history buff: an instrument played by Gypsies on the streets of Hungary. For CU Denver’s Laurence Kaptain, DMA, the cimbalom is a link to his heritage and a primary part of his musical past.

The dean of the College of Arts & Media (CAM) regularly heard the cimbalom played at social functions as a child, growing up in a Hungarian enclave in Elgin, Illinois. Today, Kaptain represents a rare breed: an accomplished U.S. ensemble cimbalom player.

“There are many players in Hungary,” said Kaptain, whose grandparents hail from the country where the cimbalom originated in the 16th century. “But there are very few players in the United States.”

Dean and three others behind cimbalom
After a June 2017 performance at the National Fine Arts Palace in Mexico City, Dean Laurence Kaptain and his wife, Dolores Arce-Kaptain, flank Araceli Partearroyo (middle left) and Susan Elbow of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.

A musical instrument with a past

Variations of the instrument are rooted in other countries, from Romania and Greece to Poland and Latvia. Gypsies commonly used portable versions strapped across their shoulders for entertaining in the streets.

Kaptain’s concert cimbalom was first developed by József Schunda in 1874 in Budapest, and his own instruments were crafted by the famed maker Bohak Lajos.

The elaborate, table-like instrument has a trapezoidal shape and stands on four legs, its player sitting poised behind it. About 125 strings stretch across the top, with three to five strings per note.

Rather than plucking the strings like a guitar or a harp, the musician strikes the strings with small, spoon-shaped mallets, creating sounds percussively, similar to a piano’s mechanism.

Kaptain plays in orchestra
Dean Laurence Kaptain performs with musical greats Pierre Boulez and Gil Shaham.

When the dean was a professional percussionist in his late 20s, a conductor heard of his ancestry and urged him to learn the cimbalom. While a difficult instrument to master even for a percussionist, as the strings are not in the same order as a piano keyboard, Kaptain rose to the challenge. With no cimbalom schools in the United States, he studied the instrument in Budapest.

Sharing the stage with legends

After Kaptain and his cimbalom were featured in the Omaha Symphony, requests came in from orchestras throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada.

His rare talent has led him to chairs with premier orchestras, such as the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. “First-call” in New York City and Chicago for two decades (1990s and 2000s), he has shared the stage with such musical luminaries as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and composer Elvis Costello.

“I performed ballet music composed by Elvis Costello with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Baltimore Symphonies, with the composer present at both concerts,” Kaptain said.

But for Kaptain, the most indelible memory stems from a recording with two musical legends. “I recorded a Bartok piece with the Chicago Symphony with the legendary Pierre Boulez conducting and the great violinist Gil Shaham.”

Cimbalom on the silver screen

Major films that feature a cimbalom:

  • “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”
  • “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
  • “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”
  • “Gladiator”
  • “The Golden Compass”
  • “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Focusing on student success

Kaptain also garnered a Grammy for a Stravinsky recording during his career.

One of his last major reviews ran in The Washington Post in November 2013, after a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. The writer noted a piece that “features a cimbalom expertly played by Laurence Kaptain.”

Today, busy running CAM, Kaptain no longer has time to play the cimbalom professionally. “But a new generation of cimbalom players has told me that they learned some of the key pieces by listening to and practicing with my recordings,” he said. “That’s reward enough.”

CU in the City logo