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Laurie Niles interview with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

April 28, 2011 at 7:10 PM

After some three decades as a soloist, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is learning to "blend."

In 2008, Nadja started a new life as the director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco, thrusting her into the role of concertmaster, conductor, music programmer, and more. Her presence has raised the profile of the group, which took a national tour in February and has recorded two albums since she started with them: Together (2009) and Live: Strauss, Barber and Mahler(2010).

But don't get the wrong idea, if Nadja's learning to blend, she's not going bland. When you add cayenne to the sauce, the flavor changes, not the pepper. Nadja's always been known for her edge-of-your-seat performances, brimming with passion and energy, and accounts of her performances with New Century attest to the fact that she has brought this ingredient to her new band.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Nadja captured the public spotlight in 1981, when she won the Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition, and she went on to perform with orchestras across the globe and make numerous recordings, including many traditional classical works as well as her popular collaborations with the Assad brother guitarists. In 1999, she was the subject of Speaking in Strings, a documentary by Paola Di Florio that won a 2000 Academy Award and told the story of Nadja's intense personality as well as her recovery from a career-threatening accident in 1994, in which she cut off the tip of her finger.

I spoke with Nadja over the phone in March, and we talked about her career path with the violin, her recovery from the accident, her long musical relationship with the Assad family, and what it's like to be music director of New Century, after so many years as a soloist.

Laurie: I've been following your career a long time...

Nadja: I've been around a long time!

Laurie: You were born in Rome, right?

Nadja: Yes.

Laurie: How old were you when you took up the violin, and what on Earth made you want to do that?

Nadja: Well, I didn't want to do it. It was my mom's decision; I was five years old. My mom played the piano, my older brother was playing all kinds of instruments, my grandfather played, everybody played! Typical Italian family: we'd have people over to eat, and then we would go in the other room, play music and talk. I think someone told my mom, 'You should give Nadja something to play, or she's going to get a complex.' So my mom bought this violin – very, very cheap, the whole package. At the time, in Rome, one of her friends was moonlighting as a beginning violin teacher, so it was really an excuse for them to see each other, that's how it started. I was five years old.

I improved as a kid that age would. There was not any kind of 'Oh my God, this is a prodigy' or anything like that. They saw good rhythm, very good intonation and a natural musicality – things that you can't really take credit for, it's just in your genes. So I think they saw a lot of potential. I think the teacher there did say to my mom, 'Look, she could be very good if that's what you want her to pursue. If you do, I would go to the United States.'

So the whole family moved here.

Laurie: And how old were you when that happened?

Nadja: I was eight.

My mom didn't know what to do with me or where to go, as far as violin teachers were concerned. She had an old friend who taught at Curtis (Institute), and she called him up for advice. He said, 'Bring her in to play for the jury here, and we'll give you good advice, we'll set you on the right path.' So that's what she did. She and I went into Curtis, and, I mean, I don't remember a thing. There were a lot of older people there, and she played piano for me. My mom and I played some little baby pieces, and I think they were impressed enough to accept me, I guess on potential alone. They started a preparatory division that year, with one student.

Laurie: You!

Nadja: I was it. Then the next year they held auditions for (the preparatory division), and there were like 15 little kids running around, but I was ruler of the roost by then.

Laurie: I didn't know they'd started it for you. Wow!

Nadja: When I was about 14, I pushed over to, not only another teacher, but another method of teaching: I auditioned for Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard for the pre-college division. I was accepted into pre-college there, and I went every Saturday with everybody else and did the whole day there, and then of course I auditioned for the college and got in. Actually I never graduated from Juilliard. I won Naumberg in 1981 and I still had two years to complete. So I went back for a year as a regular student, but I didn't do very well so I just dropped out.

Laurie: Well if you're soloing and that kind of thing, I imagine it's hard to keep the studies up.

Nadja: I gotta be honest with you, I'm not a bookworm.

But it became a lot harder, yes, because I did have these concerts to play, and I did have to to prepare for them. It was all so, so new for me. I did not have an inkling of the time-management skills that I now have. So it was difficult for me, and I was falling behind in classes, so I dropped out.

But you know, every time I say that, people say, 'Oh, what did it matter? In your field you don't need a degree....' It's all very true; I went on to have a wonderful solo career. But I always felt like I missed out, and I always wished that I had the college degree. I was given an honorary masters, which is really the way to get a masters. (Both of us laugh.) Let me tell you, that is the way to do it! So I have something on my wall.

Laurie: Where's that master's from?

Nadja: New Mexico State University.

Laurie: For a long time I've had your recording of Ain't Necessarily So, and when I first heard it, I was really moved by the Leibesleid – 'Love's Sorrow.' I read the notes that you'd written, and you talked about your grandmother. I myself was extremely close to my own grandmother, she lived with us, and this was very near my own grandmother's death, when I read your notes, and that inspired me learn the piece. You hinted that your grandmother had a real impact on your character and personality, and I wanted to ask you what you meant by that, how she helped shape who you are.

Nadja: Well what I am as a person, I pretty much owe to my grandmother. My mother was always there, but when I was growing up, she was always a disciplinarian to me, which I'm very grateful for and she is now very grateful for, because I can take care of her! But she had to go to work, in her own defense, and earn a living. We all lived together, as is quite common with European families, so the grandparents lived with us. So when my mom went off to teach at the Philadelphia public school system, it was my grandmother who took care of me and raised me. She is the person I spent the most time with, so I learned what I know about life – and about living – from her. Everything which is personal about me, I learned from my grandmother. And it stayed with me -- it stays with me. Being in her presence, I watched how people reacted to my grandmother, how people loved her, why they loved her and how they always wanted to be around her, how she had this power. She was a completely uneducated immigrant. That was a huge influence on my character.

Laurie: There has been so much documented about your injury and how difficult it was and how it was a time of deep depression...

Nadja: That's good copy for a violinist, you know, when you chop off a finger.

Laurie: I imagine there's another side of it, because here you are. I wondered what kept you going during that difficult period of time and how you kept moving forward.

Nadja: When I look back on it, it happened in 1994. At that time in my career, I was completely overworked. It's funny, because I feel that way now, but now it's what I bring into my own life. Then... the management and the publicists do their thing, and you go for the ride, you go along with the tide of it. I was really starting to hit existential despair about playing, and it was becoming very clear to me, the sacrifices I had to make in order to keep this career on the level that it was. I was overworked and tired and questioning things -- and I had this horrible accident. At the time, I thought it was a sign, a really clear sign. Of course, the people who were closest to me were also supporting (that idea,) because what do you tell someone who is a solo violinist who lost a finger? You just want to try to re-frame it.

It was shocking. It was a shocking day, and everything that I knew of my life thus far was gone, in less than a second. When I came out of the shock, I realized that I would probably would never play again. What was I going to do? I started thinking in those terms. For a while, it was a little bit exciting. As I said, I was tired. I really knew that I could not continue at that pace.

So I looked into this and looked into that, thinking about different possibilities for my future. Meanwhile, the weeks passed and the months passed. The income wasn't coming in because, of course, I had to cancel everything for quite a bit of time. I started to feel pressure to make money again, to be perfectly honest with you. So I was trying to heal the finger and force a quicker recovery than was happening.

I came up with a way of bandaging the finger, multiple times, with New-Skin, with padding, so that I could actually put it down on the fingerboard without feeling the pain or opening up the incision. I came back and played a number of recitals: I remember I played the Tchaikovsky Concerto on tour. I was able to sort of put the finger down, but certainly with no pressure. I used the finger, in a sense, for runs and fast passages, but to actually put the finger down and vibrato and hold the note? That was out of the question. So basically I had to re-finger all this repertoire for three fingers. I played about four months' worth of concerts doing that...

Laurie: Three-finger Tchaikovsky? That sounds pretty hard!

Nadja: I know, it's hard enough with four fingers!

Laurie: It would be hard with five!

Nadja: You know, things that you look back on, and just think, how did you do that? Why did you do that? Wow.

And it came to pass that I actually missed playing. So I think that the accident was meant to be, and it was a sign, and it was a Godsend, to actually kick me in the ass, to remind me why I play the violin anyhow. I missed it a lot, and when I started playing again, I felt whole again.

Everything's fine, 10 years later. I've healed. But I still try to remember how I missed it, and why I play. I had a 100-percent recovery. Later on, skin was grafted from my toe onto the finger so there wasn't any scar, so it's as if it never happened.

Laurie: That sounds like a really difficult lesson, a difficult way to learn something like that.

Nadja: You ought to learn from everything. It's just an attitude that I believe in. Even if it's just sitting in a pile of crap for a long time, you have to think to yourself, there's something here that I'm going to come away with that's going to be very valuable. I've had a few moments, a few real turning points in my life, and I'm very grateful for them.

Laurie: I have been listening to your CDs: Originis, Nadja and the Assads Live from Brasil (2004); Tchaikovsky and (Clarice) Assad Concertos (2004); the first album with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, Together (2009) and New Century's new release, Live: Strauss, Barber and Mahler.

Many of your albums over the last 10 years have involved collaborations with guitarists Sérgio and Odair Assad, as well as Sergio's older daughter, Clarice Assad, who is a composer. I wondered, how did that relationship come about?

Nadja: That came through Nonesuch records. I had signed a contract to start recording with them, and the Assads were already recording for them. At the time, they were very family-oriented and they wanted their artists to work with each other. So I was introduced to them, and I was blown away by what I was hearing. We came up with a project for the recording company, and that's how that started. The project was hugely successful, and we toured together for about 16 years.

Laurie: It seems like it's a really good combination, what do you think works for you with the Brazilian...

Nadja: It wasn't so much Brazilian, they just happened to be Brazilian. It was the combination of the two guitars and the violin, and Sérgio was a really fantastic arranger. If you have a great arranger, the sky's the limit. One of the first things I ever heard them play, before I knew who they were, was Rhapsody in Blue – for two guitars! I thought, wow, that guy can arrange.

For the first project that Nonesuch wanted, they basically gave the three of us carte blanche. My first instinct was to do something Baroque, but Sérgio had another idea in his head. He'd had Gypsy music in his head for a while. So he came up with these extraordinary arrangements of original folk tunes from where the Gypsies traveled, in Eastern Europe. Each one had a little folk tune, and he made these incredible arrangements. This turned out to be a hugely successful album, and then Nonesuch put us on tour with it and the trio became very popular. So at one point, we played two tours a year, just constantly playing together. That was a fantastic partnership.

Laurie: It sounds like a lot of fun, too, the music just sounds fun. I also saw that Clarice (Assad) wrote you a violin concerto, and I wondered if you worked together on that, or if she just did it and gave it to you...

Nadja: We didn't work on it at all together, she just wrote it and gave it to me. She wrote that violin concerto for her masters thesis at University of Michigan, and I said, I'll come out and play the concerto, if it helps you to pass, get an A, whatever it takes. So she gave the piece to me, and I liked it so much. I thought it was an amazing first effort -- she had not written for orchestra before. So I recorded it.

Laurie: It does seem like the kind of thing that would be fun for violinists to play.

Nadja: It's a wonderful little piece, and everything about life is timing. At that time, when she presented the piece to me, I had agreed to record the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with my old colleague Marin Alsop and her orchestra at the time, the Colorado Symphony. We were debating about what the other piece would be, because you need more than just the Tchaikovsky, and we just couldn't agree on the other piece for that album. Then boom, I got the concerto from Clarice, and it was in the same key. I thought, I really like this piece, let's do it. And Marin agreed. So it's timing. It just happened that way, and it was a good break for Clarice as well.

Laurie: You have a whole new life now with the New Century Chamber Orchestra. I was going through the orchestra's blog, and you guys have entirely too much fun, or at least it looks like it!

Nadja: We do have a lot of fun when we're playing, and fun when we're rehearsing. Pretty much everything musically with us is so vibrant and wonderful. The other side of that coin, and it's not a bad side, it's just another side, is building an orchestra in a time when it's pretty much impossible to do that. The challenges that we face, financial and otherwise, are extraordinary right now. Yet, it's working. It's working phenomenally well. I think people are moved by inspiration, and people are moved by results, and if you have a combination of these two things, the loyalty and the momentum is always there. So when we're faced with another challenge, we find a way to meet it and conquer it.

I'm on my third season with the orchestra now, and so I'm lucky to have musicians that believe in me and trust in me. I'm lucky to have a staff that is willing to be molded and I'm lucky to have a board which supports me. It's all about inspiration, and it's result-driven. I just took them on tour, and we just released our second album. That's pretty fabulous, considering the times that we live in, and the structure of this organization. They're seeing results, and everyone is having a very good time, fighting the good fight.

Laurie: What is it like, after you've played as a soloist for so long, to be the director of an ensemble?

Nadja: It's something that I've only recently gotten pretty adjusted to, and I'm in my third season. For one thing, I had no idea what the 'music director' job description entailed. I thought that I would rehearse the orchestra, get them ready for concerts, lead them in the concerts and pick out the programs, come up with some recording ideas. I had no idea how much (administration) the job entailed. And then, of course, the job entails much more than any other music director because it's my responsibility to put them on the map. That's why they hired me, and that was what I decided I was going to do. So the job became so much more than I thought it would be: it became my life and my musical purpose. It's great, but it is extremely time-consuming.

Musically-speaking, the job was challenging because here I had to sit in a concertmaster chair, and that's not what I am used to, at all. I just didn't know anything about it! Anything! I would say the hardest thing for me in that position is to blend. Blend, and lead at the same time. It's a challenge because I'm sitting in the concertmaster's chair, therefore I'm a member of the first violin section. I have to play that part, but I have to lead the whole orchestra, there's no conductor. So for about a year and a half, possibly two seasons, when I listened to CDs of our performances, I could hear me, over the rest of the section. I know why: it's because I had more responsibility, I have to lead, and I have to be the strong player. But it's still not right; I have to blend with them.

Another huge challenge for me was respecting what is on the page. As a soloist, you respect it to the point where your ego comes in. That's actually what you should do, as a soloist. So for me, as a soloist, a dotted quarter is whatever I want it to be, but as an orchestra member, it is what it is. So it was hard for me to pull back and respect that.

But it's been an amazing adjustment. If I had to sum up what my life has become: I am a total and complete chameleon. I go from one persona to another, very quickly. Director, first violinist, soloist, label owner...whatever it takes, I become that instantly.

Laurie: What do you think they're learning from you?

Nadja: Good question. I think what I brought was a vibrancy, and certainly it's goal-oriented now.

Laurie: What do you mean by that?

Nadja: I mean, they see that they are becoming more and more known and respected. People are actually saying it's the best string orchestra in the United States, which it absolutely is, but people are saying it now! So I think everybody is seeing that, so that trust is there. But I think musically, what they possibly could be learning – I cannot speak for them – is that every note is important, no matter what that is. It could be accompaniment part, it could be a sustained note that you're holding for 16 measures – it still has vibrancy and importance – and a meaning, within the piece. I think that they maybe get that from me. And then there's a lot of energy. I bring a lot of energy to the group.

Laurie: What do you have on the plate for the future, here?

Nadja: Just to sustain this enormous growth we're going through right now, trying to expand our season to include more sets in one season. There's another tour, an east-coast tour that's being planned for November. Of course, recordings will not stop. Just this growth of this orchestra that nobody really heard of except in the Bay area now has a wide and wonderful national radio presence and we're playing live all over the country. This makes you, it's funny, you have to go somewhere else to be appreciated at home. So it's a strange rule of the world of entertainment, but it's true. So now this is all coming together beautifully, in a very difficult time.

Laurie: And you live in New York, right? So what's it like, to sort of be 'bi-coastal'?

Nadja: What you think it is, you get on a plane.

Laurie: I'd think it might be kind of a pain.

Nadja: It is a pain. For someone who's as busy as I am, not because I loved the show so much and it became such a part of my life, but I very much wish we lived in a Star Trek world, where you could just literally just energize to somewhere else and not have to lose an entire day, flying from the West coast to the East coast.

Laurie: Or even a Harry Potter world; we could "apparate."

Nadja: Yes, Harry Potter, too, you are absolutely right.

Laurie: One last question for my violin geek folks. What kind of violin do you play?

Nadja: I like to joke about it and say: I play a used one. It's Peter Guarnerius, Venice, made in 1721.

Laurie: Nice. Still in love?

Nadja: Yeah, I love the instrument. We had an instant chemistry when I first played it, and as far as the size is concerned, it fits my hand perfectly and it's been a very good instrument for me. I have to say, as a violinist, I think I am the most not-interested-in-instruments soloist of any soloist I've ever met or encountered or talked to or read about. It's always, 'Gotta get the next best violin, I bought this one, I've sort of half-paid it off, I'm going to sell it, I'm moving up, I'm going to get this, I used to like Strads, now I like del Gesus...' For some people, it becomes their life. I can certainly see that, but I found a good instrument, I just stuck with it. There are better instruments out there, there are certainly worse instruments, but I feel fine. It's like a really good marriage, I don't have to look any further.

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on April 29, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Interesting. But rather than call a Peter Guarnerius "used", I'd call it "pre-owned"! ;-)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 29, 2011 at 4:29 PM

 Great interview! She has such an interesting story to tell. (I very much enjoyed watching Speaking in Strings, a few years back, as well.)

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on April 29, 2011 at 8:32 PM

LOVE Nadja!

From Diane Allen
Posted on April 30, 2011 at 2:08 PM

I love her! Wow - such an exciting performance.

I wonder what her bow is...

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