|In 1994, at the ripe old age of 17, Nokuthula Ngwenyama did something unusual. She became the first violist in 14 years to win the "Young Concert Artists International Auditions." Ever since then, she has been dazzling audiences and critics with her passionate professional performances.
Historically, the viola has been an orchestral stepchild, playing second fiddle to the violin. It was the violin, in fact, that Ngwenyama began playing. All of that changed after a chance hearing of the viola solo in a Mendelssohn octet scherzo. Against the wishes of her mother and her music instructor, she switched instruments. "Nobody ever understood why I loved the viola the instant I heard it," said Ngwenyama. "That was the sound I always wanted to make on the violin."
The scarcity of viola solos means that Ngwenyama has carved her niche. "Violists don't have too many solo works in the repertory," said Raymond Harvey, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic. Despite the paucity of solos however, the richer tones of the viola are what attracted Ngwenyama to the instrument. "The viola embodies so many qualities," Ngwenyama said in an interview. "It can have the virtuosic qualities of the violin; it has the charm and the versatility, but it also had a deeper, very passionate, seductive sound. It depends on who's playing it."
Ngwenyama has spent the last six years performing with some of the better known names in classical music. Her orchestra appearances read like a jet-setter's appointment book: the Baltimore Symphony, the Colorado Springs Symphony, the Tucson Symphony, the Orquestra Filarmonica Nacional of Venezuela.
The violist has also made several television and radio appearances. She has been profiled on CBS Sunday Morning; performed on the tenth anniversary of NPROV's Performance Today with Wynton Marsalis, Denyce Graves, James Galway, and Murray Perahia; and her contribution to PBS's Sound of Strings garnered an Emmy Award nomination for the Musical Encounter series.
And since her competition debut, Ngwenyama has fit in performances at the Kennedy Center, the Louvre, Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, Tokyo's Suntory Hall, and at the White House for President and Mrs. Clinton. She received a 1996-1997 Fulbright Grant to study at the Conservatoire de Musique in Paris. Right after that she earned a highly coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant. The 23-year-old Boston resident has also made a point of participating in music festivals including Spoleto, Banff, Marlboro, and Vancouver.
With all the accolades and performances, Ngwenyama remains very focused on her musicianship. "She's amazing," said fellow musician and high school friend, Theresa Treuensels. "She's always known what she wanted to do, even very young, she played way beyond her age."