Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the February 21,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

For this Violist, a Diverse Past and Present

Now here’s a thumbnail sketch that strains belief:

Nokuthula Ngwenyama grew up in Los Angeles, the child of an African

father and a Japanese mother. She now divides her time between


work at the Harvard Divinity School and performing on an international

circuit using a viola born in Brooklyn. However, a conversation with

Ngwenyama makes her story coherent.

In a telephone interview from her home in a Boston suburb, the


24-year-old violist talks with quiet maturity and good humor about

how she came to balance serious academic study of non-Western


with making a name for herself in the world of classical music. Her

radiance and warmth on the telephone coalesce with my memories of

her sunny, charismatic platform manner. That she is a member of the

glamorous spaghetti-strap school of viola playing cohabits easily

with her academic pursuits.

Ngwenyama’s fascination with theology and theological systems is a

long-term interest. "I liked looking at the reasons why people

believe in things the way they do," she says. "I was


in areas that were not Judeo-Christian, or not even Semitic. I wanted

to get out of the cultural boundaries of the United States and look

into the validity of other beliefs."

"I’m a half-time student," she says. "That allows time

for concerts, and for practice. I’m not in a rush to finish. This

year I had a lot of concerts and I toned down my academic schedule.

Harvard’s wonderful about working with students who have other


I haven’t had to modify my concert schedule. But it takes a lot of

organization to do both. I’m embarking on research that will lead

to an academic career. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to manage both

the viola and theology studies."

Nokuthula Ngwenyama (pronounced No-coo-too-la En-gwen-ya-ma) performs

at the Peddie School’s William Mount Burke Theater, Saturday, February

24, at 8 p.m. She’s known as "Thula." Judging that most people

would identify her name when they encountered it, she has never been

tempted to change it.

Her collaborator at the piano is Grace Hsiao-Ching


The two met at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 1993, where

they happily read music and performed together. Having lived in


cities since Curtis, this is their first full concert together since

their undergraduate days.

A native of Taiwan, pianist Chung, 25, came to the United States as

a teenager in 1989. After graduating from Curtis, she completed her

master of music degree and the Professional Studies Program at New

York’s Juilliard School. She is currently a doctoral candidate at

Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. Explaining that she is


in teaching and performing after finishing her studies, she says,

"In order to get a teaching position anywhere these days, a


degree is necessary."

The program opens with pieces originally for viola by William Flakton

and Paul Hindemith and concludes with pieces originally for violin

by Cesar Franck and Fritz Kreisler. Ngwenyama says that the


Flakton work from the mid 1700s is one of the first pieces for viola.

"Flakton," she says "wrote the piece because of the


of pieces for viola. He took pity on the paucity of the viola


and he also saw the future of the viola as a solo instrument."

Because the number of works originally for viola is limited, violists

borrow the pieces of other instruments, most frequently violin and

cello. Despite the relatively small number of pieces written for her

instrument, Ngwenyama’s repertoire list includes two dozen


for solo viola and orchestra. She appeared with the New Jersey


Orchestra in 1995 and 1998.

About two-thirds of the items in Ngwenyama’s repertoire list are


as being available on short notice, ready for performance when someone

else’s emergency arises. "I could play them tomorrow," she

says. "I’ve had the experience of having performed them many times

and worked on them over the years. I’m familiar with them; they’re

in my working repertoire. Bringing something back doesn’t take that

much. You just work on the difficult passages."

Ngwenyama polishes her technical mastery, but she also keeps the


of music in perspective. "Musical interpretation," she says,

"goes beyond the physical feat. But it’s hard to put forth a


interpretation when something physical gets in the way. Technique

is not an end in itself, but it enables you to achieve musical


I start from the notion that technique fits into a larger musical


"I practice scales and arpeggios," she says, "just to

keep the equipment going. These are resources that you have to keep

up. Ngwenyama uses transcriptions of violin studies by Ottakar Sevcik,

Carl Flesch, and Henry Schradieck to keep in good form, although she

has to endure a certain amount of teasing because of her devotion

to technical studies. "I went to France for a week with a friend

from Curtis," she tells, "and when I opened my suitcase the


books were visible on top of my clothes. I need my daily fix of


Ngwenyama considers herself an American. "Actually," she says,

"I’m half Ndebele and half Japanese." The Ndebele are a Zulu

people who live in Zimbabwe. "My parents met at the University

of Missouri, at an international students’ dinner. Actually, that’s

a very American phenomenon. American universities attract students

from all over. There’s a great influx of cultures."

When Ngwenyama was three, her mother returned to Japan, and the two

have not met since Ngwenyama was a child. She was adopted by a friend

of both her parents, whom she identifies only as "Charlotte"

and thinks of as her mother. Her father, a historian, died about five

years ago. "At least, I got to know him," Ngwenyama says,


Ngwenyama’s earliest musical experiences came in Charlotte’s family.

"Mom loves music," Ngwenyama says. "My older brother


French horn and I was exposed to his lessons and concerts."


adoptive brother, 16 years her senior, died at an early age. "You

don’t pick those situations," she says. "They happen and you

have to cope."

Ngwenyama’s first instrument was the violin. She fell in love with

the viola after hearing her mother’s tape of the Mendelssohn Octet

on the cassette player in the car. Violist Michael Tree’s solo in

the Scherzo riveted her. "I heard it a lot," she told Joseph

McLellan of the Washington Post. "In California, whenever you

go anywhere, you go by car." Her mother helped her put viola


on her violin and found a book called "From Violin to Viola"

to learn about the transition. However, both Ngwenyama’s mother and

her violin teacher discouraged the switch.

"I kept studying violin and learning viola on the sly," she

says. Finally, a basketball injury made it necessary for her to give

up playing for six months. When she started again, it was more viola

than violin, and, finally, viola became her sole instrument. "It

was scary," she says, "but I loved the viola and love gives

you strength and endurance."

During high school, her mentor was Alan de Veritch. He made her


never to play violin again. Appreciative of de Veritch’s guidance,

she says, "It’s difficult for parents and teachers to know how

to guide adolescents. You’re in your formative years. You’re so


to knowledge. Your brain is sucking up knowledge all the time. He

was the right person at the right time to encourage me and motivate

me. I didn’t really see a career in music for myself. I thought, `I’ll

play some concerts. I’ll just be practicing and playing.’ But I didn’t

think about building a career or about specific competitions to enter

in five years or in ten. He told me to enter the Primrose Competition

[a biennial competition names for violist William Primrose] when I

was 16; he thought I would win. I won. From there, I was recommended

to Young Concert Artists [an annual competition], which I also


At 17 Ngwenyama was the first violist to win the Young Concert Artists

competition in 14 years. "My mom is not a stage mother; she just

wanted me to be happy. I was fortunate to have had the right


she says.

After graduating from Curtis, Ngwenyama won a Fullbright grant to

work at the Conservatoire de Musique in Paris in 1996. In 1997 she

received an Avery Fisher Career grant. Up to five Avery Fisher grants

may be awarded annually to talented instrumentalists with the


for solo careers; they are awarded by a distinguished jury without

any application process.

Ngwenyama’s admission to the Harvard Divinity School

was a by-product of a concert she gave at Boston’s Gardner Museum.

At a post-performance reception composer Leon Kirchner encouraged

her to drop in on the school. "I thought they wouldn’t accept

me," Ngwenyama says, "but he made me promise to go the next

day. I went, and explained that I was a musician interested in


I talked informally with people there and they liked me. I guess that

what made me interesting to them was that I had an unusual background.

I took the GRE [Graduate Record Exam] to show them that I have a


vocabulary and some general knowledge." As a graduate student,

she has taken courses on the Shona migration to the Zimbabwean


and on the Zulu language.

In April Ngwenyama performs in Zimbabwe’s two major cities, Harare

and Bulawayo. "There’s already a lot of media interest," she

says, "and I’ve done interviews by E-mail." The concerts are

part of a larger personal journey. "I’m so excited to play in

Zimbabwe," Ngwenyama says. "My father’s family is still there.

I have close connections with an uncle who came to the United States

to study. I visited my grandmother and other relatives for the first

time three years ago. My grandmother is in her 80s, and she’s hanging

on. She’s of a generation where there’s not so much AIDS. People of

my uncle’s age and younger are dropping of AIDS."

Then Ngwenyama talks of the personal setting that lends her Zimbabwean

tour special importance. "My father was born in a rural area,"

she says. "There are no roads to my grandmother’s house. After

you leave the city, there are only dirt roads, then you just turn

off and drive across the fields. There’s a tree here, and a shrub

there, and some footpaths. I wouldn’t know how to get to my


house, but my uncle knows. My grandmother is not educated in a western

sense. Last spring I took a semester of Zulu. This time I will be

able to talk to her directly without a translator, and will be able

to get some stories from her. Anything I talk about with my


will inform me, not only about cultural topics, but about her life,

and my father’s. It’s of educational, cultural, personal, and


interest to me."

Ngwenyama will bring a tape recorder to Zimbabwe and hopes that


will lend her a digital video camera for her month-long stay. She

hopes to make a documentary film that will illuminate some of the

components of her exceptional personal history.

— Elaine Strauss

Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Peddie School, Mount-Burke

Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. $20. Saturday,

February 24, 8 p.m.

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