Remembering child piano prodigy Mama Nena

Published July 4, 2021, 7:25 AM

by Deedee Siytangco

Genius consists of equal parts of natural aptitudes and hard work. —Andre Maurius

Her demise on June 4, 2021 might have marked the end of her journey as a pianist, but her legacy as a legend who endowed the world with uniquely thrilling and stellar musical experiences will continue.

We are speaking here of Natividad del Rosario-Villanueva, who will always be remembered as a piano virtuoso and whose immense prowess in playing the instrument shone brightly in the world.

Mama Nena, as her family and closest friends would fondly call her, is an Ilongga born on Sept. 22, 1935. Her journey to become an illustrious pianist started at an early age, with her mother, Gertrudes Hautea, known for having high standards for her daughter, serving as one of her first mentors.

As the first acknowledged Filipino child prodigy in piano, Mama Nena made her orchestral debut in 1945, at only 10 years old. She played a piece by her favorite composer, Mozart, with the Manila Symphony Orchestra at the old Assumption Convent on Herran Street, now Pedro Gil.

At age 11, Mama Nena hopped on the troop ship, General Gordon, and voyaged all the way to America. Despite the long journey toward far west, she was able to practice her pieces on the piano onboard and even sat down with a respected pianist and fellow traveler, Dr. Jose Maceda. She played Triana by Albeniz totalmente with Dr. Maceda, after only learning the piece by ear.

Nena as a young prodigy and an adult pianist.

For her formal training, Mama Nena studied at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she was honed by some of the greatest artists of their time. She was under the tutelage of Madame Isabelle Vengerova. She also attended master classes with Vladimir Horowitz and Ilona Kabos. She eventually earned her Artist’s Diploma in 1956, making her the first Filipino to ever graduate from the prestigious institute.

At 12, Mama Nena went to Manhattan, New York to perform for a benefit show at Carnegie Hall, one of New York City’s best concert auditoriums that hosted some of the world’s greatest orchestras, instrumentalists, and singers. At 15, The New York Times sponsored her to join the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a recital after winning a musical competition. The child prodigy was truly a rising star!

Mama Nena spent much of her younger years in the limelight, doing piano recitals one after the other, a testament of her incessant fondness for the beat of music. Her talent was almost like a passport that took her to different countries, performing in concerts in Japan, China, Spain, France, Ecuador, Hong Kong, London, and New York, among others.

She also got to collaborate and play chamber music with world-renowned artists like cellists Mstislav Rostropovich, Renato Lucas, and Geronimo Velasco, violinists Rony Rogoff and Oscar Yatco, violist Dino Decena, and contrabassist Antonio Rodriguez at the International Bamboo Organ Festival.

She also appeared on the same stage as famed orchestras from different corners of the world, such as the Little Symphony of New York, the CBS Symphony, the New Haven Symphony, the NHK Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa, the Japan Philharmonic, and the Orchestra Villa de Madrid.

At her peak, Mama Nena was Manila’s biggest music icon. People did not only admire her for her exceptional talent, but also her charisma, not to mention her 23-inch waistline! Throughout her career, she was able to play with every Filipino conductor and orchestra of note in the Philippines, including the Philippine Harmonic Orchestra under Maestro Piero Gamba.

Her unrivaled feat as a pianist merited her the Gawad CCP para sa Sining Pantanghalan in 1997, which recognized her “singular artistry at the piano, for a talent that seems to only get better with the passage of the years, providing younger artists with a standard of excellence to strive for.”

Mama Nena regarded her children as her most treasured gifts. She had five children with the late Generoso (Oso) Villanueva, Jr. of Bacolod City. Their eldest, Paz Blackett, however, died in 1992 in New York from respiratory illness at only 36 years old. She was a banker living in NYC. Her second daughter, Marianne de Jesus, is a published writer and teacher living in California.

Her sons Jun, Tommy, and Eugenio, are now all married with children. Jun is the co-founder of technology firm MDI Group and also a property developer, specifically the MDI Corporate Center in BGC. As for Tommy, he is an equities broker and executive working for Philippine Equity Partners. He also founded Tommy’s Coffee, an independent coffee retailer. The youngest, Eugenio, is a tech entrepreneur who co-founded Ventaja Group, which is involved in distributing prepaid phone cards and Mobile 1, a mobile gadgets retailer.

Although none of her five children pursued formal training in classical music, Mama Nena’s grandson, Luis, is classically trained in violin. He is now a Warner artist with his own Spotify channel. She is a proud lola in heaven, for sure.

Mama Nena died peacefully in her sleep. She held her last solo concert at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Little Theater in 2003. Mama Nena spent majority of her life as an instrument for people to see, hear, and feel the world differently through her music.

 
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