Nena del Rosario Villanueva: ‘Only a Steinway, or my daughter will not play’

Pianist Nena del Rosario, who died June 4, shone brighter because of her mother’s high standards for her piano prodigy daughter

Nena del Rosario Villanueva: At age 12, she made her Carnegie Hall debut after winning a New York Times piano competition. (Photo from invite to virtual Funeral Mass for Ms. Villanueva)

“TAKE leisurely and aimless walks and get lost. Capture the very essence of the destination and build memories of the place—it will make you come back for more.”

That was the advice of pianist Natividad “Nena” del Rosario Villanueva (September 22, 1935-June 4, 2021) to people who wanted to enjoy traveling.

To be sure, she was a frequent traveler all her life, answering the call of music. At age 11, she traveled on a slow boat from Manila to San Francisco via the troop ship USS General W. H. Gordon. It was the same historic ship that served the US Navy in World War II. It sailed to Panama from France on August 5, 1945, bringing replacement troops for the Pacific war. It stopped in Manila to debark troops, and steamed into San Francisco Bay in September 1945.

The pianist recalled the voyage on that ship thus: “I was 11 years old and my first trip abroad was on the General Gordon—a troop ship, which had not yet been converted into a regular passenger vessel. The men slept on one side, while the women on another. It had triple-deck beds, and I recall the beautiful Susan Magalona occupying the top space. Our final destination was America. You may not believe this, but the ship had a piano where I played my piezas. Oh yes, fellow traveler Dr. Jose Maceda, the illustrious pianist, sat down with me, and thanks to him I learned the Triana by Albeniz totalmente by ear. I also remember that at all ports of call, my mom somehow always found a piano and made me practice some more.”

After San Francisco came another long voyage, this time by train to Chicago, and then to Philadelphia, where she was admitted into the Curtis Institute.

She studied under the famous Russian pedagogue Isabelle Vengerova. She had master classes with the famous Vladimir Horowitz. At age 12, she made her Carnegie Hall debut after winning a New York Times-sponsored piano competition.

At age 12, she made her Carnegie Hall debut after winning a New York Times-sponsored piano competition

Back in Manila in the ’50s into the ’60s, she was the toast of the music world. Her last performances happened in various venues (from Francisco Santiago Hall of PCIBank to the Cultural Center of the Philippines) in the early 2000s.

In her frequent travels abroad, she fantasized about bumping into Nelson Mandela and Czech statesman Vaclav Havel.

Her own journey has just ended. She died peacefully in her sleep on June 4, 2021. She was 85.

In a eulogy after the funeral Mass last June 5, the pianist’s brother, Mariano del Rosario III, summed up 85 years of his sister’s life.

The pianist was born in Iloilo on September 22, 1935, and learned the piano from her mother, Gertrudes Hautea. At age 11, she played during the Independence Day celebration, then observed on July 4, 1946. At age 11, she entered Curtis and debuted at Carnegie Hall at age 12, after winning a competition.

The brother’s recollection: “Nena and I are 12 years apart in age. I remember when I was growing up, and when Mom would teach Nena, I’d sit at the top of the stairs watching them for hours. My mom also tried to teach me to play the piano, and the best I could muster was Beethoven’s Für Elise.

“She was relentless in the desire and design to further her piano skill sets and went to Paris to continue her studies. A simple yet poignant experience I recall is when she was rehearsing in one of the concert halls, and a custodian checking the building heard her play. He was so taken by her exquisite practice and was so moved by the music during her practice that he gave her access to the hall at any time; he was so impressed. Losing Nena means I’ve lost a friend, a love of my life from childhood. I won’t have a person whose house I can barge into and feel at home in. Someone to whom I can spill the beans and have no regrets. I have lost a sister who would do anything for me or a friend, a kind person who cares for everyone even before caring for herself. A sister proud of her children and their accomplishments, a mother and a grandmother who cared and loved with all her heart.”

Other music lovers have fond memories of the pianist.

She was one of those I worked with who could play from memory in her senior years—in a sparkly low-back gown, too! Sexy!’

Recalled Angel Nacino worked with the Manila Chamber Orchestra (MCO) Foundation, which had a concert series at the Francisco Santiago Hall, based at the then PCI Bank Building in Makati. “She was a gentle and sweet lady. It was an honor to have worked with her and Maestro Oscar Yatco. She is a legend! She was one of those I worked with who could play from memory in her senior years. She was one of those who I worked with who could perform in a sparkly low-back gown, too! Sexy! And with that back, I could see clearly from backstage how her muscles worked together and connected with those powerful hands and fast fingers.  She requested me to bring her nine-foot-long piano to our Santiago Hall. How could I say no? Nine men had to carry the piano because our lifter could accommodate only a seven-foot piano.”

From writer Danton Remoto: “Tia Nena was kind and generous person. I met her through her daughter, Marianne Villanueva, whose book of stories entitled Ginseng I published at Ateneo. She attended my farewell dinner before I left for a Fulbright scholarship in the US. She gave me an envelope and said, ‘Pasensiya ka na, hijo, these are some dollar bills I found at home.’ When I reached my house, I opened the envelope. It contained a total of $500 in denominations of 20, 50 and 100. She always told me to keep on writing my books. She knew full well the life of an artist.”

From painter Phyllis Zaballero: “She was patriotic in her own gentle way. She was a member of my activist group of women, AWARE (Alliance of Women for Action towards Reform) since our formation in 1983. She leaves an empty chair at our table.”

I never got to write about the Iloilo-born pianist, but I watched some of her CCP concerts with a common friend, soprano Lilia Reyes, who would hoot “Encore!” after an evening of Chopin concertos. Lilia would tease me before we parted, “Pablo, I know you have another favorite pianist. But you enjoyed this one concert, right?

Of course I did, I reassured her.

When I started a concert series at the heritage house called Nelly Garden in Iloilo City, I paid tribute and took note of Ilonggo artists, from tenor Otoniel Gonzaga to violinist Gilopez Kabayao and pianist Ma. Luisa Vito.

Then former Tourism Secretary Narzalina Lim reminded me, “Pablo did you know pianist Nena del Rosario was born in Iloilo?” I never associated the pianist with Iloilo, for one reason or another. Somehow that detail about her life escaped me.

I recall my first meeting with Villanueva in August 1983. She told me an interview was out of the question, as she was still grieving the death of Ninoy Aquino

(It must be noted that the port of Iloilo was opened to world trade in 1855, six years after Frederic Chopin died in Paris.)

Like Villanueva, Ilonggo tenor Otoniel Gonzaga, with Cecile Licad, also went to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where they were honed by great artists of their time. While Villanueva had Vengerova and Horowitz, Licad found a legendary piano teacher in Rudolf Serkin.

Gonzaga received his training at the Curtis Institute of Music under the tutelage of English tenor Richard Lewis and American soprano Margaret Harshaw, and later from Prof. John Lester. The Ilonggo tenor won the Marian Anderson Voice Competition while still in Curtis. He sang in the Curtis chorus with Placido Domingo in the lead tenor role in Il Pagliacci.

Villanueva and Licad won piano competitions in New York in their teens.

I recall my first meeting with Villanueva, which didn’t yield an interview, in August 1983. Honestly, she told me an interview was out of the question, as she was still grieving the death of Ninoy Aquino. I accepted that.

On this, my first and last article on the pianist, I try to pick up snatches from a life of 85 years.

She was the widow of lawyer-businessman Generoso Villanueva, mother of three sons and two daughters (one moved on earlier) and a grandmother of nine.

She loved Paris, but in her native country, she singled out Bacolod as her favorite place. It was her husband’s hometown, where she felt always warmly welcomed and forever loved.

From her distant past, some memories are still sharp and vivid, as recalled by kin and admirers. In some ways, her earlier life as prodigy looked like scenes from the films Shine and The Competition.

Her mother had such an obsession with the piano, Villanueva could not conceive a life away from it.

But she was determined to live other lives.

In the end, she found her other voices as wife, mother and grandmother.

But she never forgot the piano.

A prodigy’s life is never easy. You savor the applause and fame. You balance family and music and not always with success.

But she knew she would have it her way.

As her favorite composer Mozart said: “I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”

And she would never forget her mother’s requirement every time a concert invitation came: “Only a Steinway, or my daughter will not play.”

Read more:

Cecile Licad up close and personal—my past 45 years

The anger and humanity of my ‘kumpare,’ Lino Brocka

Have a peaceful journey to the stars, Ricky Lo

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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