Instrumentalist - Viola, Instrumentalist - Violin
Taft artist makes sweet viola music
As the Taft Museum of Art's 2010 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, a violist, says she has two primary goals. The first is to celebrate the legacy and accomplishments of African-Americans in the fine arts.

The second, she says, is to illustrate to the young musicians she'll meet during her 10-day residency (Thursday through Nov. 14) that anything is possible.

"There should be nothing holding you back, no matter what interests you have, whether classical music, painting, sculpture, ice skating or whatever you want to do. If you decide to go down that path, you're joining others who have a precedent of doing this at the highest level," she says. "This is a legacy that we're all part of, and it's important to show that this legacy exists and is a part of the heritage of Cincinnati and of the United States."

Ngwenyama, 34, was born in Los Angeles to a Zimbabwean father and a Japanese mother. She is a virtuoso of the viola, the alto voice of the string family. Last April, she stepped in at the 11th hour to perform as soloist in Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Ironically, it was through her last-minute appearance with the Cincinnati Symphony that she made connections leading to the Taft Museum residency. She had not known of the relationship between the African-American artist Robert S. Duncanson and his patron, Nicholas Longworth, who commissioned Duncanson's landscape murals for the foyer of his home, now the Taft Museum of Art.

When she visited the museum to view the murals for the first time in June, she was deeply impressed. At the time, she was in town to perform a recital at the International Viola Congress, being held at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music.

"Now I feel like Cincinnati is becoming a second home," she says.

In the concert world, it is not the viola, but the violin, with its wide-ranging, often flashy literature, that usually gets the glory. As a musician of growing distinction, Ngwenyama is doing much to dispel myths about her instrument.

"Those preconceptions of a viola not being a solo instrument I think are wrong," she says. "Whenever people hear it, they say, 'Why don't we hear more viola?' Because it's a middle voice, neither soprano nor tenor. That leads people to think of viola as more of a supportive instrument rather than a stand-alone instrument."

During her residency, she will perform three public recitals, including one at Allen Temple A.M.E. Church, featuring classical composers of African descent. She'll also give master classes at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, spend a day at the School for Creative and Performing Arts and visit other schools in the region.

"I am practicing like a crazy person right now," she says. And practicing has become more complicated since starting a family with her husband, classical guitarist Michael Long. She's the mom of a 4-year-old and a 17-month-old.

Ngwenyama - her name is pronounced No-ku-TU-la En-gwen-YA-ma - began the violin at 5, but she gravitated to the viola seven years later when she first heard it played on a recording by Michael Tree.

"I just loved the sound of the viola," she says. "It has a beautiful, rich, warm, buttery, glowing sound. When I heard that, I thought, that's the ultimate sound. That's the sound I always wanted to make. It took me a while to realize that that sound was coming from a viola and not a violin."

At 17, she won the Primrose International Viola Competition (which she now presides over as director) and Young Concert Artists International Auditions. Her résumé includes an appearance at the White House and profiles on "CBS Sunday Morning" and PBS' "Musical Encounter Series."

Because Ngwenyama loves to teach - she has held faculty posts at the University of Notre Dame and Indiana University - the residency is a perfect fit, she believes. She is anticipating her work with students. And she can't wait to show listeners what a viola can do.

"You hope that people will become so enchanted and bewitched, they'll say, 'We want to hear the viola more and more,' " she says.

Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Enquirer
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