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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
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
Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. $20. Saturday,
February 24, 8 p.m.
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