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Terez Mertes

Why Nadja works for me

April 30, 2007 at 2:54 AM

April is a month where the world won’t stop coming at me. Too much, too many, too long, too noisy. Socializing, birthday parties, Easter egg hunts, kid and school issues, choir practices, week-long visitors. It’s like December on steroids. No surprise: it makes me crabby. This year, fortunately, I had two musical havens to escape into: a recital by Sarah Chang at Villa Montalvo, an elegant chamber music venue; and a recital by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg at San Francisco’s Davies Hall.

Sarah’s recital came first. A fiery rendition of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, followed by a soulful contemporary piece by Richard Danielpour and finally, Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 2. It was a first-class performance, my favorite part being the Prokofiev, where Sarah and pianist Ashley Wass really hit their stride together to create a spine-tingling spectacle.

But my April grumpiness intruded. For starters, I hated my seat. There was a little girl behind me hawking and snorting from post-nasal drip throughout the entire show, which grated me to no end. The red velour seats of the “intimate” Carriage House seemed old and tired. It felt like a small cinema overdue for a renovation. I could almost smell the popcorn, the B.O.. The cramped seating plan, like many older venues, had insufficient grading that forced me to view the concert through the lacquered pouf of the woman’s hair in front of me. What had I been thinking, I kept fretting to myself, that I’d scored a “prime” seat, back when I paid my $70.00 eleven months earlier?

I have no complaint about Sarah’s performance, which was polished, poised and predictably high caliber. She displayed passion throughout her playing, particularly during the Kreutzer, where she tore loose dozens of bow hairs. My gripe is obscure: in spite of her virtuosic playing, I was left feeling as if I’d never once seen the soul of the musician, much in the way a gifted politician can chat you up and make you feel important, witty, insightful, fascinating, but once they’ve moved on to the next person, you realize there’d been no real connection.

I like transparent people. I am eternally seeking the soul behind the polite face, that unkempt, feral inner world of the mind and heart, particularly that of the artist, the genius. I like grit and determination and pathos. I want to connect on a deeper level with the musician. This, then, is what compels me when I attend a great artist’s recital.

Well. As you might guess, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg really worked for me. I love San Francisco’s Davies Hall, I loved my seat, I loved the entire repertoire: sonatas by Beethoven (no. 1) and Brahms (no.s 1 and 2) with a dollop of Schumann (Intermezzo for the F-A-E Sonata) tossed in. Pianist Anne Marie McDermott has frequently collaborated with Nadja, and her constant nonverbal communication, affection and support toward Nadja were palpable, lending a richness and intimacy to the performance.

People tend to love or hate Nadja’s playing. In the film, Speaking in Strings, critic Martin Bernheimer complains that “She's battling the composer rather than interpreting the composer.'' This, I agree, would be a legitimate concern, and one I wasn’t prepared to overlook. But I felt none of this, only the spirits of Brahms and Beethoven, swirling around us like a fog. True, she doesn’t hold back, and purists complain about her “dark” passion, her facial expressions, her exaggerated swaying. I, however, didn’t find them distracting. Instead, they mirrored precisely how I was feeling: the heaviness of my mood and the heady release the music, particularly the Brahms, provided. It was transcendent, both for the musician and myself.

Above all, I like what Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg represents: an artist who refuses to be corralled into an expectation of how she should stand, play or appear. Only her art, and her relationship with it, matters. She reminds me that it’s okay to be different, to be difficult, to be carried away by one’s art, to express emotion that just can’t stay inside because for some of us, it’s too big, too intense. It consumes us. We have to share it. I love that about her. She made me forgive myself for my own intensity and the way I always muck up my oh-so-easy life. Better yet, she made life, in its unpredictable, glorious, draining, roller-coaster messiness turn into something beautiful—she made music out of it all.

Hearing that made for a much-improved April.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 30, 2007 at 3:42 AM
I love your description of your reactions to the musicians. I'm glad you liked Nadja so much. I, too, look for the soul behind the face, behind the playing, even when the playing is very good. I look for that elusive something, and you described it very well. Thanks.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 30, 2007 at 3:58 AM
Thanks right back atcha, Pauline. As I am not a lifelong classically trained musician and can only claim expertise as a listener and observer of human nature, I had some trepidation about posting such comments here. Glad they were taken in the proper spirit. And glad you liked them!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 30, 2007 at 4:21 AM
That critic's quote about battling the composer instead of interpreting him is a really silly statement I think, like a couple of other reviews I've come across recently. A critic ought to at least write something that coveys some meaning. Some meaning about the subject of the review I mean. I start wondering why these silly people give some players good reviews and others bad ones when they start talking that way. Thompson's famous review of Heifetz, you know exactly what he's saying whether you agree or not.

NSS is one I'd like to see, but whenever I get the opportunity I'm too lazy to go through with it. Then I think later it might have been fun. But I skip the next one too.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 30, 2007 at 2:05 PM
Jim - yup, she's worth seeing. She puts on a real show - it's not just the music, it's watching her, waiting with baited breath to see if she'll make a witty aside comment or share with the audience a wink or rolled eyes, which she does just enough to bring to mind Victor Borge, but always restrained enough to keep the attention focused on what she clearly reveres: the music. You could feel how engaged the audience was.
It was fun.

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