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Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg Delights in Doing It All

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Fanfare Magazine

By James Reel

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg came to prominence in the 1980s as a forceful musical personality, and she's been in take-charge mode ever since. At first, it was enough for her to match wits with dead composers, each performance becoming not so much a battle of wills as an interaction of vibrant artistic characters. Because that was a time when performers were expected to master beauty of tone and technical facility but suppress their own individuality, Salerno-Sonnenberg tended to be scolded by critics almost as much as she was applauded by fans. She persevered, and after a few years she and like-minded artists persuaded many listeners and critics that it was sometimes actually interesting to hear performances motivated by ideas, passions, or both.

Along the way, she took charge of her career, adding to her usual schedule of classical concerts and recitals appearances in small venues-even nightclubs-with unexpected musical partners, particularly the Brazilian guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad. Whatever she played, whether classical standards, jazz-oriented numbers or Latin-American Assad originals, Salerno-Sonnenberg made it clear that she played this material because she loved it, and if we had any sense we'd love it, too. Next, she took charge of her recording career, once EMI's classical commitments started dribbling away and major brick-and-mortar chain stores like Tower Records began collapsing. In 2005, she launched her own small label, NSS Music, which features recordings by Salerno-Sonnenberg and/or her friends, including pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, hornist John Ceminaro, and the jazz trio fronted by Clarice Assad (Sergio's daughter, who is also an increasingly prominent concert-hall composer).

Now, as of last fall, she has also taken over her own orchestra: San Francisco's New Century Chamber Orchestra, a 17-member string ensemble founded in 1992. The group mingles standard rep with commissions and newish pieces often drawing inspiration from other musical genres. As music director, Salerno-Sonnenberg also functions as the New Century Chamber Orchestra's primary soloist, concertmaster, and muse. Before Salerno-Sonnenberg joined up, the orchestra had already made four recordings for three small labels; now it's got a new one on NSS Music, dominated by Astor Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and something Clarice Assad wrote especially for the orchestra, Impressions.

As the finishing touches were being placed on the release, I spoke with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg about the disc and her activities with the orchestra.

J.R.: With the New Century Chamber Orchestra, you're not only the music director but also the concertmaster. What are the group dynamics like-who calls the shots in rehearsals? Can the concert performances be freewheeling, or do you have to rehearse every nuance down to the slightest detail and stick with it?

N.S-S.: This is a conductorless orchestra, with a different dynamic from when you work with a conductor. The musicians really listen to each other. They have to; there's not some guy up there in front of them waving a baton around. So in rehearsal, every single person in the orchestra has input and contributes ideas. And now I'm the leader of that. I've been a soloist all my life, and I'm amazed how I got through this last season; it's all consuming. I didn't know what it would be like sitting in that chair, but I guess I'm a natural leader in the sense that when I play, people go with me, even in a 100-piece symphony orchestra. So my band goes with me, but it's not all about me; we all work together. In performance, there's nothing but spontaneity on that stage, and when I found that out, that's why I fell in love with this group. I played with them the September before last; I had a kind of an audition. They gave me an offer to come in and spend 10 days with them, lead the entire concert, sit in that chair. I was skeptical but very curious about how this would be for me musically, and within moments it was clear that we played exceptionally together. The chemistry is just spectacular. When we rehearse, we work out many, many things together, and these musicians know me and they know my playing and they trust me. So we have a strong foundation from the rehearsals, we are extraordinarily prepared, but in concert, everybody knows that anything can happen. For me, it's like I have 17 tubes attached to my body doing what I feel is right, on the spur of the moment. But that doesn't make it easy; it's incredible pressure, and I can't relax for one measure of music.

J.R.: Is playing within an orchestra rather than just in front of one something that you've always wanted to do, or is this a comparatively recent interest?

N.S-S.: It's something I've always loved to do, but I never wanted to be a concertmaster-it never occurred to me. I've seen some of my (violinist) colleagues become conductors, and that's never been interesting to me. But I have always loved playing in an orchestra; when I was a kid, I'd done that since I was eight years old, because it was required in music school. My training and experience is so vast because of that. When I went to Curtis, I was eight and I could barely speak the language, but I learned so much just by being in that orchestra. Curtis had a program in which whoever came to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra that week had to conduct the Curtis orchestra for three hours on Saturday morning. I used to resent that, because I'd have to miss Saturday-morning cartoons, but at eight, nine, 10 years old, I was playing Mahler and Daphnis and Chloe with the greatest conductors the world has ever known. So I've always loved being in an orchestra.

J.R.: What do you think you're bringing to the New Century Chamber Orchestra that's different from your two predecessors as music director?

N.S-S.: I think I'm right for this group right now because of my energy, and I do not feel that there's any other violinist in the world who's as committed to them as I am. This is an orchestra that's spectacular, but needs attention. It needs to be recognized, it needs to be put on the map. Nobody plays like them. The energy I brought in, and the vitality and urgency of how I play really sparked something in them. But it was always there. You can't make a musician do something that wasn't there in the first place. I just figured out how to get it out of them.

J.R.: How much of your time does this job take up in the course of a season?

N.S-S.: All of it, I swear to God. We are, as an organization, in a place that needs to grow, and we are involved in the classical arts, which are hurting more than ever, so that makes it twice as hard, and the job never, ever ends. Wherever I am, I'm constantly working on the computer, on the phone, planning and trying things and cajoling. It's constant. Plus, they're on the West Coast, so my staff is calling me at 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 my time on the East Coast where I live. It never stops. My solo career is not a job you put away at five o'clock, and neither is this.

J.R.: You've always been an East Coast girl. How do you like the Bay Area vibe?

N.S-S.: I love San Francisco. I'd gone there as a soloist many times. I had phenomenal days there when I had the day off, and it's a great walking town, a very liberal place, a beautiful place, and the food is fantastic. Nobody really moves there for the weather, but other than that I adore it, and to be part of that now is great. However, since I took this job I haven't had a single free hour in San Francisco. I'm glad I got my sightseeing done in years past.

J.R.: Tell me about this CD, "Together," you've got coming out.

N.S-S.: This orchestra has been Grammy-nominated already, and this is our first CD together, so it seemed like a natural thing to make a CD called "Together" and to push the hell out of it right now. When I played with them for that audition, I was just starting to play the Piazzolla Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. The first time I heard it, I'd felt like I'd gotten hit on the head with a pan; of course I had to play this! And I thought it would be amazing to play this with them. So on my very first concert after I signed the contract, we played this. It's a piece with freedom and style and sexuality; it's unreal, this arrangement. It's arranged for violin solo and strings, but stylistically, technically, the performance is only as good as the orchestra, because it demands so much of them. When we played it, it was like there were 17 Nadjas on stage, all of us with exactly the same feeling and passion all the way through. So it was a no-brainer to put this down on disc as soon as possible. Clarice's Impressions is a spectacular piece. She was our composer for the season, and it's basically her impression of me playing with this particular orchestra, and her impression of each section of the orchestra. It's a real showpiece for the orchestra. Everyone went crazy for it. Then there's the Bartók at the end, before our Gershwin encore. I put the album together with a dance theme in mind, and I had heard a version of the Bartók Romanian Dances for violin and strings; I thought if I could manipulate that arrangement slightly, spread the solos around, it would turn out to be a terrific piece for us, and it did.

J.R.: Does having your own chamber orchestra make the recording situation any easier, either artistically or tactically?

N.S-S.: It's easier musically. You know them, they know you, everybody is playing at their absolute peak in the season. There's a personal tie there that doesn't exist when you fly in to record with a major orchestra. That's a spectacular thing. Everybody's on board for what I want to do with the orchestra, so everybody's going beyond their potential-not just the musicians, but everybody on the staff and the board is on a mission. I think that's the kind of energy I brought to the orchestra.

J.R.: And how about the CD with the Assads, "Originis," which you released not too long ago?

N.S-S.: "Originis" is a very personal project for me. I've been playing with the Assads for many years, and I made a CD with them many years ago that is actually what started our trio and our touring. Clarice wrote this concerto, Originis, for us, which was a very personal honor for me; she had not yet written a concerto for the guitar duo, but she wrote this piece for the trio-the duo and me-and it's a great piece. We premiered it in the States and played it all over the place, and arranged to record it live (with the Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de São Paulo). It was made quite a few years ago but just kind of languished there, unreleased. I decided to be a little more aggressive about the mechanics of it, and put the album together myself. The piece is an homage to us as a trio-the whole album really is-and it's an exciting project for all of us. I'm thrilled that there's finally another album of me and the Assads.

J.R.: Has NSS Music turned out the way you expected? What have you learned along the way?

N.S-S.: I've learned what the major labels lied to me about and what they didn't lie to me about. Now that I am the label and not just an artist under contract, I've really learned quite a lot about the business. I came from the other side of the record industry, the outside, and now I've leaned everything from the inside. I've also learned that no label should plan a recording just for the sake of its being successful. It never works that way. You have to be organic with the repertoire you want to record, and do the best you can, put your stamp on it, and put it out there. That's the major lesson I've learned over these eight releases, and there's not one album I'm not proud of. Every single album has such personal meaning and such a level of excellence, and I'm proud of this little label that's doing so well, and of the energy I've put into this.

J.R. : When I talked to you about this a couple of years ago, you were intending just to sell the CDs online, but now you've been picked up for distribution by Allegro. What was the thinking behind that?

N.S-S.: Yeah, I started with Koch as my distributor, and now I'm with Allegro. In the beginning stages you want your product to get out there in as many places as possible. I did want to have a presence in the stores, but since then a lot of those stores have gone defunct. Now we're pretty much talking about Barnes and Noble for a classical album. I just wanted a presence in as many places as I could be, and that's hard when it's do-it-yourself.

I just want to say one more thing about my orchestra. When I started thinking about this album, everybody was saying, "You should play concertos!" But I wanted to show the orchestra off as well. Even though the Piazzolla is my big solo piece on the album, the orchestra is very present on that piece; it's very demanding. I wanted to introduce my fans to this new part of my life, and that's why I didn't play solo for the whole album. I'm very passionate about this group, and my role in bringing them the respect and recognition they deserve.

The newest work leads off this disc of international song and dance for string orchestra, Impressions, which Clarice Assad wrote for the New Century Chamber Orchestra after hearing it play another piece of hers in 2007. "I was immediately impressed by their vivacity, as well as their ability to sound as one without compromising their own individuality as performers," she writes, and Impressions reflects Assad's characterization of the orchestra in performance with Nadja SalernoSonnenberg. The first movement is a theme with variations; the foundational melody has the sinuous line and phrase-structure repetitions of an African-American spiritual, almost. Its permutations include a jazzy pizzicato bass solo and a syncopated episode reminiscent of Mark O'Connor. Speaking of O'Connor, the second movement seems like the jazziest element of Texas swing meeting Brazilian rhythm; it's called "Fusion: Dança brasileira." Next comes "Affection: Slow Waltz," said to have been inspired by the obvious connection between the orchestra and SalernoSonnenberg; it calls to mind a Villa-Lobos modinha, with restless and plaintive passages for the solo violin. After this is "Precision: Perpetual Motion," a scherzo springing from a nervous, fast ostinato. It concludes with a coda with its own name, "Unity," basically a reprise of the first-movement theme. Throughout, and particularly in the fast music, the orchestra's attacks and articulation are wonderfully crisp and precise, as if this were only a string quintet, yet the tone is so full and well blended that it often sounds like far more than 17 players at work.

The other most substantial work here is Astor Piazzolla's increasingly popular Las estaciones porteñas, or Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which pulls together four independent "nuevo tango" works Piazzolla wrote for his bandoneón-led quintet between 1965 and 1970; among them is one of his signature pieces, the dark and gritty and soulful "Verano porteño." In 1999, Gidon Kremer asked Leonid Desyatnikov to bring the four items together into a suite for violin and string orchestra, which Kremer intended to combine with Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The new arrangement goes so far as to quote, or at least allude to, Vivaldi's concertos from time to time, but the music remains mostly Piazzolla. There have been several recordings of it during the past decade; the most pertinent comparison for this latest version is perhaps Lara St. John's new recording with Eduardo Maturet leading the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Surprisingly, it's St. John who's the schmaltzier performer of this music, with more indulgent, dynamically wide glissandos, although her playing is sometimes quieter overall than Salerno-Sonnenberg's is. This is certainly not to say that Salerno-Sonnenberg's interpretation is undercharacterized, but in many ways it's more emotionally controlled, more poised and classical in a sense. At the same time, Salerno-Sonnenberg can summon plenty of throbbing sentimentality, and is as exhibitionistic as she needs to be. There's a big difference in the way the two orchestras come across; the excellent Venezuelan group is bigger, but recorded at a greater distance; its playing seems softer-edged and more in the background than the New Century Chamber Orchestra's up-front, nimble performance, full of wicked precision and snap. Each reading is very effective in its own manner.

Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances receive a folksy, good-humored performance with enough zest that they don't sound like an afterthought, despite their late placement on the disc. The Gershwin item is played with affection, and brings the disc full circle, back to the mood of Assad's opening theme. All in all, this disc is smart, fun, and marvelously played.