LIHUE, Kauai — When Monica Chung, a concert pianist and, more recently, yoga teacher, arrived on Kauai about five years ago, she was burned out from a life of touring from music festival to music festival around the world and having little to show for it.
Kauai became her refuge. She didn’t perform publicly for several years while establishing herself as popular yoga instructor.
But the conservatory-trained Chung, who made her precocious orchestral debut when she was 11, had no intention of divorcing herself from the classical music she loves. She is now 35.
A couple of years ago, Chung started to move in music circles again with the Kauai Concert Association, which puts on chamber music events several times a year. Then in 2017, she re-emerged as a soloist in a concert that is still the talk of Kauai classical music fans.
She quickly discovered that mainland musician friends are as interested as anyone in vacationing on Kauai and she wanted to leverage that interest into a performance ensemble to mix piano, violin, viola and cello.
There was a slight problem. Serious classical players travel with their instruments. That’s fine if you play violin or viola, not so good if you’re a cellist. A musician would not dare surrender a delicate — not to mention valuable — instrument to checked baggage. So cellists typically must purchase a second full fare ticket and strap the instrument into the seat next to them.
But classical music is not lucrative. The Kauai Concert Association has very little money. So Chung could not make a string quartet work. There was, she discovered after an islandwide search, no cello to be found on Kauai.
That’s where Henrietta’s story begins.
Named by Chung because classical string players often name their instruments, Henrietta was created by a luthier in Brauningshof, Germany (near Nuremberg) in 1994. His family business has been making stringed instruments since 1850.
Nearly 30 years ago, the cello that would become known as Henrietta came into the hands of a young boy who was reportedly just as talented on cello as Chung was on piano as a child. But in middle school, Chung said, he gave up music and the cello ended up in storage at the home of her mother in North Carolina. It stayed there — never once played — for 20 years.
The boy’s mother was heartbroken that he threw away such talent, and she was stuck with the instrument. “She couldn’t bear the thought of selling it,” said Chung. “So she gave it to my mom and said, ‘One day, you’ll know what to do with this.’”
So, when Chung realized that Kauai was cello-less, she called her mother. Henrietta began her long journey to Kauai, via repair shops in Atlanta and Chicago, where it turned out that, miraculously, it needed only minor work.
Still, the repairs dragged on and on. There was a concert scheduled on Kauai and musicians had arranged to fly in, including a cellist who would be instrumentally empty handed.
“Meanwhile, I was trying to get this cello to Kauai,” Chung said.
Enter Dr. Ivan Chuah, a dentist in Lihue, who also happens to be Chung’s boyfriend. He was going to be passing through the same city where Henrietta was being repaired. Chung called the shop and told them she was dispatching “a courier” and that Henrietta had better be ready to travel.
The cello made the concert. When it arrived, Chung said, “I knew the first time I saw it that it had to have a female name.”
Chung can be very determined. Importing Henrietta was nothing compared to her struggle to get her own Steinway grand piano from New York to Kauai. That took months and a benefit concert.
So today, Henrietta is Kauai’s cello — “the glue,” Chung said, of the island’s small chamber music community.
By all accounts, it is thriving on the island, sounding better all the time, according to Chung and violinist Kaycee Parker. Parker recently performed with Chung as part of what has become Ensemble Henrietta.
The two women may be the sum total of the population of conservatory-trained serious classical musicians who live full time on Kauai, where carrying a cello through a restaurant in Kapaa turns heads the way carrying a surfboard through a New York City china shop would.
Parker said she is awed by Henrietta because stringed instruments usually can’t be left idle for years at a time. They are fussy, demanding things. Parker never makes the two violins she takes on the road checked baggage. She has lived on Kauai for 11 years and has three kids — two born on the island — so her concert schedule has been reduced of late.
She has played with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra and continues to appear at mainland concert venues.
“The wood of a stringed instrument changes as it resonates while it’s being played,” Parker said.
It took some time for Henrietta to adjust to the climate on Kauai. Both Parker and Chung said the sound the cello produces would be remarkable under any circumstances, but especially so given how much Henrietta has been through.
Henrietta was last seen in public at a concert in Lihue two weeks ago. The program, with Chung on piano and Parker on violin, included works by Beethoven, Ravel and the lead singer of the group Queen, Freddie Mercury, who before his death in 1991 became a serious composer.
Henrietta was played by Eleanor Norton, a New York resident who has toured with orchestras and the likes of Natalie Merchant and Adele.
Norton loved Kauai. And for Henrietta, there was a standing ovation.
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