Interview: Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

*(Find out below how to win one of her CDs)

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is an energetic, powerful presence on the concert stage. Her performances are captivating and memorable.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Photo: Christian Steiner

The award-winning solo violinist, concertmaster and music director with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, TV star (she’s done a few guest appearances and PBS specials) and writer, has performed around the world for decades. She has shared the stage with Composer and Violinist Mark O’Connor, Violinist Eileen Ivers, and Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, as well as many of the world’s symphony orchestras.

She has released several albums, including ones on her own label, NSS Music, which she started in 2005.

Nadja continues to strengthen her talent with a lot of practice time. She’s been playing music since she was five years old and admits it has shaped who she has become.

“As a professional musician, it’s not the kind of thing where you can leave your work at the office,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “Sometimes that’s fine, but sometimes it’s invasive. [Music] is a part of me as much as my blood is. I’ve been involved [with music] heavily every day of my life in one form or another.”

Nadja joined the 19-member New Century Chamber Orchestra (San Francisco) in 2008 as their music director and concertmaster. Now in her third season with the orchestra, they are in the midst of their concert tour, which includes a commissioned world premiere from Mark O’Connor in May. The orchestra’s second recording, Live, was released last November on the NSS Music label.

Photo: Christian Steiner

Nadja continues her role as soloist and is set to perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra February 24-26. She’s thrilled to be returning to Atlanta for her sixth appearance with them and she admits the piece she’s performing, Astor Piazolla’s Las Cuatro Estaciónes Porteñas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), is unusual.

“It’s a wild ride,” she says, and adds that the audience will want to “be prepared and be open. And if you’re not [planning on] coming, you should come.”

The musician was in San Francisco preparing the New Century Orchestra for their tour when we spoke for our interview. We talked about her upcoming Atlanta performance, her challenges and benefits working with New Century, and how her extensive musical tastes have shaped her as an artist.

Read the interview, followed by Nadja’s and the New Century’s concert schedules, and details on winning a CD!

JML – Tell me about Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” What is it about this piece you admire?
It is a piece I heard quite a few years ago. Someone introduced it to me, although I had been playing Piazzolla’s music prior to that. I did not know of this arrangement of this piece. [Piazzolla] wrote “Four Seasons” for his quintet originally—beautiful, wonderful small pieces. They became popular because of their beauty and they were arranged and transcribed in different forms. It’s a simple song with a simple tune and it was clear I had to play it immediately. I learned it as quickly as possible then I performed it and later recorded it with New Century Orchestra. It’s a tango, so it’s not a normal violin concerto. Piazzolla used musical quotes from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” That makes this arrangement not only interesting, but at times, comical. It’s so ultra-demanding for the orchestra since it’s not a typical accompaniment. And it’s just for strings, which makes it demanding of [the string section] to be soloistic. The solo violin part is passionate and almost carnal. It’s extremely sexy and pulsing because of the tango rhythm. It’s a wild ride. It’s also fun to put together and to perform. I’m happy to be doing it in Atlanta.

JML – For ones who have never heard this piece, what would you like them to take away from it and from the performance?
To prepare them, I’d say they’ll hear sounds they’ve never heard before. For example, there are scratching sounds. The scratching sounds are meant to be percussive. There are a lot of very percussive pizzicatos. The orchestra is very tribal in that sense, and the audience needs to be open to that, as well as all the sensuality that comes within a tango. It’s a lot of fun. You should not expect the norm.

JML – You are in your third season with New Century Chamber Orchestra. What benefits have you derived working with them as the music director?
As a soloist coming in and sitting in the concertmaster’s chair and leading the orchestra, and since we have no conductor, it’s an enormous amount of pressure and responsibility. It’s been so rewarding for me. This wasn’t planned. I did a guest appearance and [the orchestra] got under my skin and there was clearly a fantastic chemistry. We put the two elements together—me and them—and it worked. It was so powerful, so I decided I would give this a go. The idea was exciting to me to bring strength as a leader and as a soloist to the ensemble. It was a challenge to lead and blend since I’m in the first violin section. I have to play out and play stronger to lead, but not stick out, as I am a member of that section. It’s an extraordinary pairing.

JML – Did you find the position a challenge since you’ve been a soloist for most of your career?
Yes. I continue to be a soloist, I just put on a different costume. You are the musician you are. What I learned a lot from them was respect for what’s on the page. As soloist, a dotted eighth note is what I want it to be. As a member of an ensemble, a dotted eighth note is a dotted eighth note and you cannot be that free to execute that kind of precision as you would with the freedom of being a soloist. Everything is completely worked through, thought through, decided on. Everyone has a say and it’s so gratifying for any musician, especially in a string position, to blend. Every player is extremely important.

JML – You perform a variety of genres including classical and jazz, and your tastes extend to opera and rock music. Do you feel your open-mindedness to the different kinds of music has shaped you as a musician? In what way?
It makes me listen better. What I’ve learned is that by playing different genres, you’re training your ear to listen to something else than what you were [originally] trained and it’s very exciting. Playing with the two Assads (Sergio and Odair, guitar duo) I got to listen with a different ear and trained it. It broadens your mind. Great talent is the same throughout any genre. Without knowing it, I’ve been open to so many things and elements of making music. When you’ve been performing for decades, it’s still nice to find and to hear something new because after a while your ears are trained differently.

JML – You’re very athletic and enthusiastic when you perform because you give of yourself during these pieces. How do you feel both physically and emotionally after your performances?
Completely enervated. Not only because the performance is over, but also because of the massive amount of adrenalin still in my system. And I always have a wonderful feeling of having accomplished something after a concert. It makes it all worth it.

JML – You entered Curtis Institute of Music when you were eight. What did that mean for you as a child?
That was unusual because then they were only a college, and they had an 8-year-old there. I couldn’t even get into the building because the door was too big and heavy. I had to wait for someone to open the door. It was fun for me because I was so little among college kids. By the next year there were quite a few little kids. It was fun and healthy to be in a mixture of kids my own age and older kids. And it was very good in the sense I always heard playing that was so much more advanced than mine. Then later when I went to Juilliard and worked with Dorothy DeLay, her class was at a high level. My best friend, roommate and colleagues were all playing at such high levels, and it was a lovely atmosphere as a musician. When I went to elementary school I was ostracized quite a bit because I was a violinist. Being in this other [arts] environment was super helpful.

JML – What advice would you give to young people who have aspirations as an artist?
One thing, the base, is if it is something so important to you, if you love it, regardless of what is around you, you must pursue that. Don’t deny yourself.

In today’s world with how the arts continue to struggle, if you have any other interests, pursue those. To have a background and appreciation for music is key for growth as a human being and for understanding many things in general. It’s too bad not every single child in the country is required to learn and to have a musical background. Music and the arts are not requirements, but it’s the world we live in.

Upcoming Performance with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg:
Feb. 24-26, 2011

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Upcoming Performances with New Century Chamber Orchestra:
March 21-27, 2011

Schubert: Rondo in A Major for Violin and Strings
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Schubert (arr. Assad): Lieder
An den Mond
, D. 259
An den Mond
, D. 296
Gretchen am Spinnrade
, D. 118
, D. 636, Op. 39
Soprano Melody Moore
Schubert: String Quintet in C major, D. 956
Mastery of Schubert

May 19-22, 2011
Elgar: Larghetto from Serenade for Strings in E minor, op. 20
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro
Frank Bridge: Sir Roger de Coverly
Mark O’Connor: Elevations (World Premiere Commission)
Alfred Schnittke: Moz-art a la Haydn
O’Connor World Premiere

*Win a CD!

One random commenter (chosen by number counter) will win the New Century Chamber Orchestra Live CD. Featuring New Century Chamber Orchestra and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg with works by Samuel Barber (“Adagio for Strings”), Richard Strauss (“Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings”), and Gustav Mahler (“Adagietto from Symphony No. 5”).

Here’s how:
Leave a comment on this post about:
*your favorite violin concerto
*your experience of seeing New Century Chamber Orchestra or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in concert
*or what you liked about the above interview

More chances to win:
*Link this post from your Blog or Twitter account
*Follow me on Twitter
*Subscribe to this Blog

Make sure you leave the link(s) in separate comments so I can verify. Do all the above, and you have four chances to win!

Comments MUST be accompanied by a valid e-mail address (no one sees them but me!) so I can contact you when you win!

Deadline for comments: midnight Feb. 26

Names are assigned numbers and the winner will be chosen by a Random Number Calculator. The winner will be chosen on Feb. 27 and he/she will have three days to reply or I will choose another winner.

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5 Responses to Interview: Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

  1. Greetings!

    I’m currently a concertmaster in a student orchestra (University of Indonesia Symphony Orchestra Mahawaditra) where none of the members (including me) study music as their major (some are studying engineering, medicine, politics, etc etc) and it’s great to find this interview because it means i get another source to learn more about being a musician.

    I also love the advice by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. I think what she said was right. For me and my orchestra friends, music is important and we all love it. So even though our major is not music, even though some of us didn’t learn to play music since we were children, we never give up to play it. We never give up to improve our orchestra.

    If I may add, my favorite violin concerto is Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. Wish I could play this someday

  2. Gina says:

    Great interview! She sounds like a very strong and talented musician! I really liked the part about how when she was 8 she had to wait for someone bigger to open the door for her.

    Great job.

  3. Eli Bensky says:

    My favorite violin concerto is by Ernano Wolf-Ferrari. Although composed during WW II for his companion Guilia Bustabo (a post-war recording which I have) it is as lyrical and melodic as the Tchaikovsky violin concerto.

    It deserves to be heard more. Apparently, it’s unheard today

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