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Saturday, June 25, 2016


(Nokuthla Ngwenyama)

Viola soloist performs with superb skill, emotion and subtlety. (Review by Michael Green)

An American performer of African and Asian descent was the principal figure in the last concert, in the Durban City Hall, of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra’s winter season.

Nokuthula Ngwenyama is an unusual musician in many respects. Born in California 40 years ago, she is the daughter of a Zimbabwean father and a Japanese mother. She is one of the world’s top viola players and she is a composer.

Educated musically in the United States and France, she also has a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard University.

She married a Jewish Ukrainian and she says she herself is a follower of Judaism, being descended from the Lemba people in Zimbabwe who are called Africa’s “black Jews”; they claim that their forebears migrated many centuries ago from the Arabian peninsula.

She lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Her names mean “peace” and “lion”. She has two children now aged six and nine.

And she plays the viola with superb skill, emotion and subtlety, as her Durban audience heard.

This was not her first appearance here. Twelve years ago she played with the KZNPO and, reviewing that performance at the time, I wrote that she was obviously a highly gifted young musician. Since then she has established herself firmly in the top rank internationally.

This time she played two works with the orchestra, both of unusual interest. The first was a Viola Concerto in C minor supposedly written by Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), a son of Johann Sebastian, but in fact written by a French violist, Henri-Gustave Casadesus, about 1947. He presented it as J.C. Bach’s work until the deception was revealed, and it is now usually labelled “in the style of J.C. Bach”.

No matter, it is a fine piece of work, and it gave Nokuthula ample opportunity to display her technical skills and full, rich tone. The slow movement in particular produced really beautiful playing.

Nokuthla Ngwenyama then played a work which she herself composed, Sonoran Storm, a ten-minute piece for viola and orchestra that describes a storm in the Sonora Desert that covers parts of Arizona and California. The programme listed it as a world premiere but in fact the first performance was in Los Angeles three months ago.

It is very attractive, atmospheric, accessible and melodious music, and, predictably, the composer gave a vivid and highly enjoyable performance.

The conductor of the evening was Carlos Izcaray, a young Venezuelan who has visited Durban before and is now in charge of an orchestra in Alabama. Under his direction the orchestra opened with a first-rate performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, the Haffner, named after the Salzburg family who commissioned it in 1782.

The big work of the concert was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major, lighter in mood than many of the composer’s works but powerful and compelling. The orchestra brought the winter season to a triumphant conclusion with an outstanding performance of this masterpiece. - Michael Green

(To link direct to the KZN Philharmonic’s website click on the orchestra’s banner advert on the top right hand of the page)