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.

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.

"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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