Opening the Soul with Music

Nokuthula Ngwenyama. Photo courtesy of edi records

Theologians often characterize the rational mind’s embrace of religion as being a leap of faith, where the believer is courageous yet humble, passionate yet deferential to an acknowledged greater good.

HDS graduate Nokuthula Ngwenyama, MTS ’02, uses similar language to describe her first performance of Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin that she adapted for the viola: “When I perform the piece, [Bach] and his inspiration are taking me on a journey. The first performance I gave of the partitas was at the Divinity School. I remember that moment so clearly: it was like looking over the edge of a big canyon, and you have to take the leap. Once you start playing, that is the moment—you open up your musicality, open up your expressive soul.”

An acclaimed soloist (viola and violin), recitalist, and chamber musician, Ngwenyama feels that music sustains and empowers her in the way that faith serves so many others.

“There is something about music that is a reflection of the human potential for good and beauty in a world capable of such terror and nastiness,” she explains. She believes that musical performance—indeed, all artistic pursuit—puts one on “the path of reaching toward something greater.”

Her insistence on the primacy of music places Ngwenyama in the august company of renowned instrumentalists and vocalists from so many musical realms—people for whom, as the legendary American record producer Sam Phillips once put it, “music is not an option,” for it contains everything else.

Ngwenyama arrived at HDS with a résumé of accomplishment that would make even the most seasoned fellow take note. She began playing the piano at 4, the violin at 6, and the viola at 12; she won the 1993 Primrose Competition and 1993 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, made her debut recitals in 1995 (at age 18) at Washington’s Kennedy Center and New York’s 92nd Street Y, graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1996, received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1997, and attended the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship.

Hailed as a virtuoso and risk-taker with a “brilliantly expressive” style, “effortless technique,” and “thoroughly satisfying tone,” she has performed on concert stages the world over, her visibility extending from a performance at the White House to a profile segment on “CBS Sunday Morning.”

While a student at HDS, Ngwenyama described herself as a spiritual “explorer,” and her concentration on Asian and African religions owed much to the fact that her father was Zimbabwean (her Zulu name comes from him), her mother is Japanese, and she was raised since the age of 3 by an adoptive single mother in Southern California. Four years and numerous performances and recordings later, she continues, at age 29, to use that same peripatetic imagery in discussing her spiritual and professional growth.

For instance, here she is describing the most emotionally draining of all composers whose works she performs—Dmitri Shostakovich—namely, his Viola Sonata but also his Violin Concerto no. 1 and Sonata: “Performing Shostakovich really takes me on a journey. He was a colossal composer, and yet he lived a life of repression and misery. It was a terrible time of deprivation in Russia; he brings me to where he was.”

And yet somehow, she believes, Shostakovich reaches an inner serenity: “All artists have to find some sort of outlet for peace, like the eye of the hurricane.”

Ngwenyama practices no religion, but she says that if she had to express a leaning, it would be toward the Lemba people of Southern Africa, whose very secretive ties to Judaism have fascinated her since she first became aware of her family lineage.

Her late father was born into the Ndebele tribe of Zimbabwe but had become estranged from that culture after immigrating to the United States. It was during a visit to Zimbabwe after her father’s death that Ngwenyama learned of her Lemba relatives and felt a connection with their esoteric practice of Judaism—a connection personally relevant given that her husband and frequent musical collaborator, Michael Long, was raised attending an orthodox synagogue and is a self-professed product of a stringent chader education.

She studied the Lemba even further while at HDS, eventually writing a thesis on the subject. “My interest in theology remains very much alive,” she says.

She hopes to return to Zimbabwe on a grant and live for a while among her Lemba relatives, where it may be possible to learn more about the rituals of this very insular people.

If Ngwenyama’s religious interest leans toward the Lemba, her artistic philosophy bows graciously toward the Buddhist idea of continual practice.

“Whatever instrument you play,” she explains, “whatever discipline, it takes so much time and effort. The whole sense of mastery is an illusion. My primary objective is to continually learn new repertoire and new technique. I just bought a fivestring electric violin/viola to play with. I have an expectation to be always growing as a musician and always growing as a person: the challenge is to live up to my own standards.”

Her choice of the viola, an instrument rarely featured in solo performance, reflects the risk-taking brio that critics have discerned in her. “I don’t think I’ve ever played the same thing the same way twice,” she observes. “Once I start I always have to let loose.” She feels the same way when choosing her musical collaborators: “I like strong personalities because I have strong beliefs about how things should sound.”

Since graduating in 2002, Ngwenyama has lived in Phoenix with Long, a classical and jazz guitarist and scholar with whom she has recorded three albums: CHE! A Musical Biography, with the Suite for Viola and Guitar, by the Spanish composer Miguel Corella; J. S. Bach Partitas; and Il Principe: Courtly Airs and Dances, with David Brewer on violin (all from EDI Records).

Being perennially open to improvisation may be the source of Ngwenyama’s almost contagious optimism. Both she and Long work out in a health club that is part of a Baptist mega-church in Phoenix.

She’s heard that membership in the club has just been extended to a temple across the way, and she has even struck up a friendship with an Iraqi woman at the club who has since left Phoenix to try to find the family in Baghdad she hasn’t seen in decades. “You just can’t make assumptions about situations or people,” Ngwenyama says with somewhat bemused cheer.

“I was just reading in The Economist about what parts of the world are the most upbeat for 2006, and believe it or not, the most optimistic people in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. I think that says a great deal about where faith is.”