NENA VILLANUEVA: Portrait of a Virtuoso Pianist as a Mother

When Yoohoo Villanueva graduated from his management degree in Ateneo de Manila University, he told his parents, Osso and Nena Villanueva, that he wanted to visit his girlfriend who was then studying in the United States.

To which his mom replied, “As far as I am concerned, you’re not yet finished. You have to backpack around Europe and after your backpacking, that’s the time I would consider you graduated.”

It is a mother-and-son conversation that Yoohoo relates to describe how it was like having for a mother the famous Nena, a virtuoso pianist who had played in the most prestigious concert halls, theaters and palaces of the world.

“She was not a typical mother. She allowed us, her children, to be a little bohemian. That was the artist in her,” Yoohoo said in an interview in his well-appointed Ayala Alabang home that overlooks a lush garden of greens and palms.

It was one balmy afternoon when Daily Tribune visited Yoohoo, boyish at 50-something and a father to a son and daughter whom he had singlehandedly raised when his wife passed on.

“It’s different in our time,” he shared. “We are so hands-on with our children. We drive them to school. In my parents’ time, there were drivers and yaya. We had yayas 24 hours a day. They worked on a day and night shift.

“My mom was not a typical mother. She married at a young age so she was not really prepared. Both my parents weren’t hands-on with us the way we are with our children today.”

(FROM left) Myla Villanueva, soprano Margarita Gomez, Yoohoo Villanueva, Nena Villanueva, Yoohoo’s late wife Ying, and Jun Villanueva.

In her time, Nena was one of the Philippines’ most celebrated artists. She came into the national cultural consciousness as a child prodigy. She attended the world-renowned Curtis Institute and performed at the Carnegie Hall. But before she could go any further in her career, she married her husband Generoso Jr., the scion of a landed and politically prominent family in Negros Occidental.

What she gave her children was her presence and listening ears at home. “She would be there when we left for school and she would be there when we came home. No housewife or kitchen chores for her, but we ate together and shared stories.”

Although away from the concert hall, Nena remained devoted to her first love, music and playing the piano.

Yoohoo, considered the “youngest” in the family, recalled, “My mother always played at home even when there were no concerts lined up. I can’t really say it was practice. We grew up with music all around the house all the time. Whether it was her playing or she was playing her records.”

Nena would come out of her “early retirement” when in the 1970s First Lady Imelda Marcos asked her to resume her career. “I think the First Lady convinced her by giving her a piano. And she couldn’t say no to that,” Yoohoo recounted.

As she was rehearsing right at home, “we, her children, gave her the space and quiet that she needed. She would practice three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon and we never talked to her until she stopped.”


Free spirited

But unlike some artists who act like a primadonna or who would exhibit grand airs, “my mom was very light and easy. She never acted aloof. That’s why people were fond of her.”

Nena was the kind of artist “who never wanted to be called an artist,” Yoohoo remembered. “For her, her talent and her playing were just a part of her. She would say, ‘You know, an artist creates.’ To her, she was playing someone’s creation. Like she would play Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Rachmaninoff so she said it wasn’t really her creation.”

Yoohoo described her as “free-spirited. She was not very strict. And she loved to travel, especially when my sisters started studying abroad. She would visit a country with friends.”

Later, she would join other pianists to form their group, Ivory Mafia, and so they would travel together.  Much earlier, she and her husband saw a lot of Lindy and Cecille Locsin. “They understood one another because Tito Lindy was trained to be a pianist, too until he shifted to architecture,” Yoohoo explained.


(Clockwise, from left) Nena Villanueva, grandson Franco, Yoohoo’s wife Tina, Yoohoo and daughter Anita.

Lobsters for his 18th  birthday

Between his dad and mom, it was the latter who “taught us how to keep our values, how to be disciplined. Like it was important to be a man of your word. My mother, on the other hand, taught us about the good things in life, like good food, good music, and the good art. Manners too, like how do you hold your silverware, or how do you present yourself? That’s why she was always well dressed because, she said, it was a sign of respect for whoever one was meeting, more than being a peacock for one’s vanity.

“And she taught us about propriety. Like one time I was visiting with some friends in Cebu and I was staying in a family friend’s home. She made sure that I had a gift for my hosts.”

Nena was a thoughtful mother and she understood her children, their passions and their dreams. Yoohoo recalled, “When I turned 18, my dad gave me a car. My mom gave me lobsters. She wasn’t here, she was abroad.  She just made sure when I woke up there were lobsters because she knew I love lobsters. Another birthday of mine, and we happened to be in New York, she took me to the Carlyle Hotel to watch Bobby Short.  Now that I’m 55 years old, I remember those gifts more than a watch or a car that I got.”

As Nena advanced in years, she became closer to Yoohoo. “In her last days, I was the one mostly with her. We would be together on weekends because she liked it here in Alabang.” By then, her Alzheimers had made things difficult for her.

“She loved this home. I was looking for a weekend place and when we saw it together and I was dillydallying, she said that if I didn’t like it, she would buy it for herself. That convinced me. Now, I think of it as another gift from her.”


Antonin Dvorak for her birthday

When she passed away at age 85, Yoohoo was in the United States. He could not easily come home. Then, he also had to be quarantined for 14 days. “They waited for me for the last Mass and before putting her ashes in the crypt.”

As Yoohoo looked back, he realized that his mother had been generous not in the usual sense of material things that are considered expensive or precious, “but in her reasons for giving them to you. The lobsters that I received on my birthday made me realize that she gave it to me out of affection and not just mere duty. It was the thought that counted. Even all those little things that she taught us, in the way we behaved and in our treating others equally and not being condescending, they matter more now and while we were well off, it was not about having enough or more than enough that mattered. It was the respect that we gave others and the enjoyment of life whether it was good music, good food or a beautiful garden.  When she insisted that I go backpacking in Europe after I graduated, it was her way of telling me that I was finally on my own and I was free to discover the world on my own terms.”

What, in turn, did he think was the best gift he gave his mother? Yoohoo shared, “I gave her a ticket to a concert in Singapore. She admired the soloist, the famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who was playing a composition of her favorite composer, Antonin Dvorak. She was so happy to watch it and as I look back now, I am glad I gave her that present.

“For then, I had given her something that she truly liked, just like what she would give me on my birthdays, the things that I really liked and cared for. She must have been happy that I learned the lesson from her. I think such gifts are all about love and affection among family members and nothing material, no matter how expensive, can replace them.”