The Wild Ones

Like many great artists, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has an inner fire, but all some critics see is smoke

"One of the roughs" is how Walt Whitman introduces himself to the world in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. On the frontispiece of the 1855 publication, there's a drawing of Whitman, shirt collar open, one hand in a pants pocket with the other set on his hip, hat cocked at a rakish angle. The pose is one of confrontation, a stance assumed by a select line of American artists who have followed the tread of Whitman's boot soles to affect the individual, barbaric gesture -- the rebel yell in the house of culture. Jackson Pollock, brutish, muttering "I am nature" in the land of '50s plasticity. Marlon Brando emitting the howl of the beast on Broadway. The unpretty Janis Joplin transforming pop into a cauldron of pain. The "roughs" -- those who drag refined culture down to the earth filth and blood passion from which it came, who open the doors to the art houses and let in the air and vulgarity to bring culture back to life.

That pose comes to mind when violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg takes the stage for her first rehearsal with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In blue jeans and black leotard, she walks with an undeniable strut and swagger that come not just from her South Jersey roots but from the artistic lineage of those "roughs." Salerno-Sonnenberg's dark Italian eyes roll with exasperation or glow with childlike intensity. Sometimes, as she waits for a solo passage, a curious expression passes across her face, as if she is amused by an inner joke. Five minutes into Ravel's "Tzigane," her bow is already fraying. Salerno-Sonnenberg is known, and both admired and admonished, for her physicality -- a rocker in the concert hall. She stomps her foot solidly on a downbeat; she leans into the violin with her bow as if to saw it in half. At the close of the wild, sinuous ride that is "Tzigane," musicians in the orchestra let out an audible "Whoa!" The string players tap their music stands with their bows in appreciation before visiting conductor James DePreist resumes control and sends them off into doing it all over again.

Since Salerno-Sonnenberg won the prestigious Naumberg International Violin Competition in New York in 1981 at the age of 20, the youngest person ever to receive the award, and began her professional career after dropping out of Juilliard, audiences have regarded her either with awe or askance. Critically, she has inspired responses reserved for the divinely gifted (or divinely cursed): "possessed," "daring to the point of madness." "She is the music," proclaimed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (another version of Pollock's "I am nature"). "She's the closest musical equivalent to method acting," said Tim Page, artistic advisor to the SLSO and Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic -- and one of Salerno-Sonnenberg's first critical champions -- writing for the New York Times in the early '80s. "She's always been known as a wild woman, and that wildness comes through in her playing."

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: If this is performance that is divinely inspired, it is the harsh, fierce gods who propel her.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: If this is performance that is divinely inspired, it is the harsh, fierce gods who propel her.

Wild women inspire another range of critical vocabulary as well: "hormonal," "outrageous," "distracting." "She appeals primarily to people who listen with their eyes," music critic Dennis Rooney told the New York Times in a 1995 profile of the musician. "Someone like Nadja, whose body language and stage deportment are so unconventional, seems to be breathing something fresh into her performances. But the more you know about fiddle playing, the less impressed you are."

"Deportment," "unconventional": Ob-serve how Rooney utilizes these words and there's a hint as to why, of all the performing arts, classical music lacks contemporary urgency. Watching Salerno-Sonnenberg gyrate, sigh, talk to herself, leap, attack her instrument with passionate ferocity, the question is not "Why does she play like that?" but "Why would a musician not want to play like that?" As anyone knows who tried to mimic Mick Jagger's mannered strut in the living room when the family was away, that solo act was an attempt to achieve a perceived ecstasy. The classical-music biz doesn't get this. "It's sad to see this in the music world," observes Page, "but there's a certain suspicion of real distinction. Better to get someone who does something perfect so you know how it's done. With (Salerno-Sonnenberg), there are times where you really don't know how it's done. There are other violinists that give emptily perfect and perfectly empty performances of everything they do. That's sort of what's more expected these days. You're expected to hit all the notes dead- on. You're expected to always come in with a tidy performance. Nadja at her best is not especially tidy; at her worst she's not especially tidy, too."

Some of the mess and some of the glory Salerno-Sonnenberg has made of her life is chronicled in Speaking in Strings, an Academy Award nominee for best documentary. Under the direction of Paola di Florio, a friend of the musician's since childhood, Salerno-Sonnenberg opens herself to the camera after a disastrous two years of her life. In 1994, Salerno-Sonnenberg nearly terminated her career, accidentally cutting off the tip of her string-hand pinkie finger while slicing onions. Then, the next year, she attempted suicide during a period of intense loneliness and depression. Standing in her bathroom, she actually pulled the trigger, but miraculously the gun jammed and did not fire.

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