The Wild Ones

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

The film, for good and for ill, contributes to her myth. Speaking in Strings shows Salerno-Sonnenberg, two weeks after the suicide attempt, performing the demanding Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 at Carnegie Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. On film, the moment she takes the stage is both riveting and horrifying, a depiction of an artist on the edge of the abyss, daring herself to linger there in the public eye, then willing herself back with the force of her music.

Five years later, after finding the grit around the soft beauty of Saint-Saëns' "Havanaise" in rehearsal with the SLSO, Salerno-Sonnenberg needs to head outside for a smoke and spend some time with close friend DePreist before she can settle into the green room for an interview. A discussion of the ferocity of felines ensues, with a baring of arms to show scars pets have made. Salerno-Sonnenberg exposes a long line down the length of her wrist, then makes a joke about how friends were alarmed that it might be self-inflicted. She laughs nervously, then turns her head away, mildly appalled by what she's just made light of.

As open as she appears onstage and in Speaking in Strings, Salerno-Sonnenberg does not ease into the interview; she keeps her guard up, which seems healthy and reasonable, given her history with the press. With regard to her art, however, Salerno-Sonnenberg is for breaking walls down. "It's an approach to music-making that is open-minded and vulnerable. That's really the word -- vulnerable. I play a passage, and whatever the mood of that passage is, it's very moving to me and I let it in. I'm very, very vulnerable -- the most vulnerable when I'm playing. Then I learn it. I do the technical things that are needed, and then I put what I let in out. I'm very good at emitting that: I communicate. That has nothing to do with training, or studying with this pedagogue, that pedagogue or a certain school. It's just an attitude about not being afraid to let the music in to begin with, let alone putting it out there.

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.

"That's something -- I think I might have been born with it. From my earliest memory being alive, I reacted to music stronger than anything: stronger than any other force, stronger than candy for a kid, stronger than smell or taste or feel or anything. It was music always -- even before I walked -- affected me so strongly, always did.

"There's a choice one can make in your training to put the wall up: I am the master of this piece. I am the master of this instrument. I understand that this is a very special passage, because if you look at it harmonically you can see the progression, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah -- and not let it hit you. Many people -- I know how they feel about the music -- don't play that way. They won't let it affect them that way. And I ask them, 'Why? Why? It's like numbing your mouth before going to the best restaurant in the world. Don't you want to taste it?' Most times the answer is 'I lose control of my facilities. I don't want to feel that I'm not completely in control of the technical aspects of this piece, every moment of it.' I think, 'Just practice more. You're missing out on a lot. Prepare more so you'll feel that much more stable, sure of yourself, but don't miss out on letting this music affect you.'"

Salerno-Sonnenberg doesn't receive the dismissive reviews as often as she has in the past. Last year she shared the Avery Fisher Prize with two other violinists, Sarah Chang and Pamela Frank, giving her near-establishment status. "The winner is longevity," Salerno-Sonnenberg observes. If her interpretive ability still comes into question, her sincerity does not. "If it wasn't sincere, if it wasn't completely 100 percent me, having seen that negative onslaught of press I certainly would have changed it. I would have reinvented myself like many famous people do, and I simply can't. I'm doing exactly the same thing, wearing the same stuff and playing the same way, to a certain extent the same kind of style, that I have even before I played concerts when I was a kid. I would have changed it if I could have."

Sometimes it's the world that changes and comes to recognize the coarser beauties. At Saturday night's concert, Salerno-Sonnenberg is greeted with warm applause by the Powell Hall audience. She's not in the flamboyant, gaudy pantsuits of her younger years, just white blouse and white pants, in contrast to the orchestra's basic black. She's not the gyrating dervish, either. She plays the "Havanaise" and, unlike in rehearsal, lets all its sweetness and soft lines come through. Then, in sublime contrast, "Tzigane" allows the artist to rip. Her playing is pointed, sharp, exhilarating. If this is performance that is divinely inspired, it is the harsh, fierce gods who propel her. The audience erupts in a manner rare for St. Louis.

Yet the critical derision has not evaporated, nor has the idiom changed. In her review of the Friday-night concert, Post- Dispatch critic Sarah Bryan Miller writes, "the grimaces and swaying were under better control than has often been the case, but she took considerable, and sometimes unwarranted, liberties with the notes and their interpretation, undermining an otherwise fine performance."

"Unscrew the locks from the doors," wrote Whitman. "Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs." Liberty and liberties have always been dangerous, exuberance just one step before revolt. The roughs are always menacing, and wildly appealing.

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