Viola called to her

Music: Nokuthula Ngwenyama, who performs Walton's Viola Concerto this week, heard her future in the sound of an instrument.

May 27, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

When world-class violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama performs Walton's Viola Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tonight she will be bringing the result of a combination of three great world cultures to the stage of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Born in depressed South Central Los Angeles to a Japanese mother and a father from Zimbabwe, Ngwenyama was adopted by a divorced white single mom from Boston at the age of 5 and raised in the pricey L.A. enclave of Pacific Palisades, where luminaries like Ronald Reagan and Goldie Hawn reside.

No wonder the 22-year-old virtuoso, whose delicate beauty and passionate music-making already has thrilled audiences on three continents, feels like a citizen of the world. Her unusual name, Nokuthula Ngwenyama (pronounced No-ku-TU-la En-gwen-YA-ma), means "mother of peace" and "lion," respectively, in her father's native language of Ndebele.

Ngwenyama has known that she wanted to be a musician since the age of 4, when she heard one of her adoptive brothers play with his school orchestra.

"Charlotte Treuenfels, my adoptive mom, was a family friend who had started taking me to concerts even before I stopped living with my parents," Ngwenyama recalled. "One day she took me to where he was rehearsing. At first I wasn't even listening. But then out of the blue I had something like an epiphany. Suddenly I knew I had to be a musician, that this was what I was meant to do."

Charlotte Treuenfels doubted the child was serious, but her musician son, Ned, thought he saw something special in the little girl.

"He told her I had an ear for the music," Ngwenyama recalled.

That year, Ngwenyama started with piano lessons. At 6, she began playing the violin, and after six years she had another epiphany.

"It was one of those watershed events in a person's life," she recalled. "I was listening to a `Music from Marlboro' recording of Mendelssohn's Octet for Strings and the viola sound was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard."

But the 12-year-old Ngwenyama didn't know at the time what instrument she was hearing. She struggled for a week to duplicate the sound on the recording before realizing it wasn't a violin. Then and there she decided the viola would be her life-long instrument.

"It was an emotional decision, where every bone in your body tells you that this is what you have to do," she says. "I know I'm a lucky person because many people go through life and never have that kind of epiphany. Knowing I had to play the viola was one of the most powerful feelings I ever had in my life."

As a high school student, Ngwenyama attended the Crossroads School, an art school in Los Angeles with a fine college prep program that also lent her a good viola to replace the $500 instrument her mother bought her to learn on.

She also studied with Alan de Veritch, who taught at the Colburn School for Performing Arts in L.A. and led various student orchestras on weekends with whom Ngwenyama performed. The Colburn School also lent the young musician an excellent bow to go with her Crossroads School viola.

Ngwenyama was an outstanding student, academically and musically. By the time she reached her junior year she had decided it was time to move on. "I told my mother at the beginning of that year that I wanted to leave high school and study at the Curtiss Institute of Music in Philadelphia," she recalls. "It didn't matter to me that I wasn't going to graduate from high school. I'm the kind of person who just goes for it."

Ngwenyama had dreamed of attending to Curtiss since she was 12. It was the only school she auditioned for, and she began her studies there in 1993.

"Today I have to joke when I talk to high school students that I'm a high-school dropout," she says. "But I feel as long as you are directed and very clear about what you want to do, there's no one right prescribed path for everyone. And I tell them that."

At Curtis, Ngwenyama studied with Karen Tuttle. In 1993 she won the Primrose Viola Competition in Chicago and the following year she won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York. Those victories won her recital debuts in New York and Washington, D.C., and launched her career as a soloist.

She's never looked back.

"You have to understand I went into music to be a musician, not to make a career as a solo violist. So everything that has happened has been a wonderful experience, and I love it, but it's just worked out this way, it's not something I planned."

Ngwenyama says audiences generally are less familiar with the solo viola repertoire than with the literature for solo violin because there are fewer viola soloists to interpret the music. But she intends to change that.

"There are a lot of great things written for the viola," she says. "The Walton is the big concerto for violists. It's this wonderful, neo-Romantic work and a beautiful piece." also played the Bartok Viola Concerto with the BSO in 1997.

Today she is a busy touring artist with a schedule of 30 to 35 concerts a year, not including summer festival appearances. After her Baltimore concert she will perform in the chamber music series at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and then at the Vancouver Festival. Later this year, she'll also record her first CD with guitarist Michael Long in a program of Baroque music on the Helicon label. "I have never put up any boundaries for myself except to play as well as I possibly can," she says. "Basically I think of myself as just me."

Nokuthula Ngwenyama

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

When: 8 tonight and Friday

Tickets: 410-783-8000, $21-$55

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