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Perfect Pitch : Gloria Lenhoff Is a 'Musical Savant' Who Sings and Plays Beautifully but Can't Understand Mathematics

December 23, 1990|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Gloria Lenhoff is a woman of great talent. She sings opera in a beautiful soprano. She plays the accordion as if it were an extension of herself, effortlessly absorbing new pieces into her repertoire of more than 1,000 songs.

Her abilities go beyond music. She speaks in half a dozen languages, including sign. While performing for a large audience representative of Southern California's cultural diversity, Gloria bandied niceties in Spanish, Hebrew, French and Japanese.

There is an aura of genius about this woman. And so sometimes, if you have known her only a few days, you forget. Because she excels in extraordinary areas, you forget her limitations in ordinary areas.

"Gloria, if something costs a dime and you pay for it with a quarter, how much change will you get back?" her father prodded.

She stared at him blankly. Math, even simple math, is not a language she speaks. "Can you help me with the answer?" she asked.

Gloria has Williams syndrome, a rare form of mental retardation that did not have a label when she was born with it 35 years ago. Although she is quite adept at small talk, her conversation becomes halting and foggy when steered off the beaten path. And she does not know the answer to three plus four.

Yet in one corner of Gloria's childlike mind, she possesses a gift that people with twice her measurable intelligence can only admire from afar.

She is what is commonly called a savant, a phenomenon that gained attention in the 1988 movie "Rain Man." But unlike the Dustin Hoffman character, who was autistic and had superior mathematical skills, Gloria's talent lies in music.

Her parents first noticed Gloria's prowess when she was 11. She enjoyed singing and putting on make-believe shows for them, so they gave her lessons in voice and accordion--with no great expectation that she would master either field.

It was at his daughter's bat mitzvah that Howard Lenhoff realized how far she had gone with her music. Before a congregation that was visibly moved, the 13-year-old girl sang Hebrew hymns with the voice of an opera star.

"My wife thinks I place too much emphasis on the bat mitzvah as the turning point," Lenhoff said. "But that was the first time I saw the effect Gloria has on an audience. Before then, she just sang around the house for her own amusement."

Ever since, Gloria has been taking her act on the road. She performs at synagogues, convalescent homes, Leisure World. A couple of times a year, she steals her father's thunder at his UCI biology class.

The students had waited months for this night--the grand finale of their undergraduate course, "Conception to Birth." Professor Lenhoff presented his last lecture of the quarter, ending with a brief discussion about birth defects.

By the law of averages, about a dozen people in the room that night someday would have a handicapped child, the instructor said. What would they do? Would they treat the experience as a tragedy, or as a challenge?

Gloria stepped out on stage, smiling brightly. She was dressed in casual slacks, as though she would be performing for a few friends rather than a few hundred strangers.

Calm and self-assured, she introduced herself. She did not sound mentally handicapped, nor particularly look it.

A prickly wave of silence rolled across the auditorium. Then Gloria began to sing Gluck's aria, "O Del Mio Dolci Ardor," her voice strong and lovely. The amazed audience thanked her with a roar of applause as Lenhoff stood in the background, beaming.

"He just radiates pride," a student whispered to his buddy.

There was still more for Lenhoff to show off. He suggested to the students that they greet Gloria in foreign languages. "Comment allez vous? " someone asked. "Je vais tres bien, merci," Gloria responded with a polished accent.

One by one, Gloria engaged in chitchat with various audience members in whatever language they threw her way. Finally, a man yelled out something she could not discern. "I didn't understand," she apologized. Was she finally stumped? He repeated himself. Oh! And she rattled on awhile in Japanese.

Next trick: Gloria sat down on a stool with her accordion and played a couple of lively waltzes. Two students leaped to their feet and danced a jig.

After awarding her a standing ovation, Lenhoff's newest fans lined up to hug her and pass along notes of praise.

A few days after the performance--one that she now gives regularly as the capper to her father's popular course--Gloria sat in her living room sifting through the students' notes. "Oh my," she said. "Listen to this." She slowly read one of the letters aloud, occasionally soliciting her mother's help.

"I first heard you sing at Temple Bat-Yahm in 1977," it began. "My sister is handicapped too. . . . When I was pregnant, I was never afraid of having a handicapped child because of what I have seen and heard you and my sister achieve. . . ."

How does it make her feel to know that she affects people so positively?

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