Instrumentalist - Viola, Instrumentalist - Violin
Acclaim
CCO, violist are delightful
It's not often that the viola steps out of the orchestra and into the spotlight. So it was a rare treat on Sunday, when the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra presented Nokuthula Ngwenyama, a young American virtuoso of the viola, as its soloist.

Music director Mischa Santora was on the podium for his second program honoring the music of Schubert, known as a "Schubertiade" - a Viennese-style informal gathering. The afternoon opened with an energized reading of Schubert's Overture in C, "In the Italian Style," and concluded with Schubert's Symphony No. 5.

Slightly larger than a violin, the viola doesn't enjoy the popularity - or the extensive solo repertoire - of the violin. So touring violists have often relied upon transcriptions of works composed for other instruments. For her Chamber Orchestra appearance, Ngwenyama chose Schubert's "Arpeggione Sonata," written for piano and arpeggione, a now-extinct guitar-like cello; and Hugo Wolf's "Italian Serenade," originally for string quartet.

The 31-year-old violist, born in Los Angeles of Zimbabwean and Japanese parentage, is an elegant soloist who projects a rare aura of calm beauty when she plays. Her 19th-century Italian viola is not terribly large as violas go (15 ½ inches). Yet, her first note was almost startling, so big and distinctive was her timbre.

The sonata's first movement, "Allegro moderato," was full of nostalgia, and played with a liquid tone and a throbbing lower register. The sustained mood achieved by the soloist and orchestra was breathtaking in the slow movement ("Adagio") the heart of this piece, and here her phrasing was deeply felt. The final "Allegretto" had a gentle, unrushed quality that was irresistible. (Printed movements in the program would have helped the audience.)

Ngwenyama had a chance to display more of the range of her gifts in Wolf's "Italian Serenade," which has the soaring lyricism of his songs. (This version was by the composer, with changes from violist William Primrose and Santora.) The violist tackled Wolf's often-angular themes with eloquence and beauty.

The program's second half was devoted Schubert's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, a piece that is ideal for a chamber-sized orchestra because of its intimate quality. Because Schubert was known for his lieder, a wealth of melodies gives this symphony its charm.

Santora, an expressive conductor, brought out its autumnal quality, yet there was also a refreshing spontaneity. Phrases were warmly executed and contrasts were vivid, especially in the earthy "Menuetto" movement. Santora's pacing was excellent, and the musicians responded with refined, spirited playing.

To open the afternoon, Santora led a sparkling reading of Schubert's Overture in C, in which Rossini's operatic influence was strikingly evident.
Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Enquirer
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