Taking a new direction

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

A chamber group took a chance on inviting a leading soloist to become their director.

By Joshua Kosman

One night in November, in a small church in Berkeley, California, across the bay from San Francisco, a group called the New Century Chamber Orchestra devoted the second half of its concert to a superb performance of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. As the composer’s post-war lament for the destruction of German culture unspooled, its 23 separate string parts weaving into an elegantly lugubrious tapestry, a listener could only marvel at the musical focus and expressivity on display. Individual musicians scattered throughout the ensemble came briefly to the fore to contribute thematic or melodic snippets – a rhythmic fillip here, a countermelody there – then retreated again in to the general mix. The result was a performance at once keenly etched in its details and sumptuous
in its overall impact.

Twenty-two of the players that night were veteran ensemble players, most of them regulars of the Bay Area’s orchestra world as tenured or freelance musicians. The 23rd was the group’s music director and concertmaster, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Yes, that would be the same Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg who spends most of her time giving solo recitals and performing the standard concertos with the world’s leading orchestras, just as she has ever since she burst on to the music scene in her teens as a charismatic and temperamental virtuoso.

But during the past 18 months, Salerno-Sonnenberg, 49, has added a new strand to her musical life. She’s been planning orchestra programmes, learning new repertoire, making personnel decisions and even – gritting her teeth over the unrewarding but necessary task – adding bowings to string parts. So, how’s that working out? “I’m loving it,” Salerno-Sonnenberg said recently during a phone interview from her New York home. “It’s challenging and rewarding all at once, and it’s so different from just walking onstage and doing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto one more time. This is a wonderful orchestra, and it’s been around for so long without ever getting the recognition it deserves.”

If this combination of forces – a top-flight violin soloist and a 17-member conductorless string orchestra that presents four concert programmes a year on a $1.4 million budget – seems a little incongruous, the results have been anything but. Since Salerno-Sonnenberg took the reins in 2008, the orchestra is playing with a new sense of vitality and determination, as well as an audacious swagger that is an unmistakable fingerprint of its leader.

Yet even as she moulds the character of the ensemble into something closer to her own image, Salerno-Sonnenberg has resisted any temptation to grandstand. She operates as a key part of the ensemble, and November’s glorious Strauss performance (which is planned as the centerpiece for the group’s next recording) could serve as an emblem of her success at integrating her artistry into that of the orchestra.

“She’s a great colleague and a great leader and a great boss,” says violinist Dawn Harms, a 10-year member of the orchestra and part of the search committee that brought Salerno-Sonnenberg on board. “She can be one of us and then turn around and be a soloist. No one else we looked at seemed able to wear so many different hats.”

Not for nothing was the first CD she released with the orchestra (on her own NSS Music Label) entitled “Together.” It includes the world premiere of Clarice Assad’s Impressions – commissioned as part of Salerno-Sonnenberg’s “featured composer” initiative – alongside music by Piazzolla, Bartók and Gershwin, and it’s a testament to the unanimity and cohesiveness with which these artists have joined forces.

Hindsight is one thing; but was a partnership formed in a spirit of uncertainty, a daring and unpredictable crap shoot. It was Harms, who also plays in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, who first brought Salerno-Sonnenberg into the picture.
“The search committee had brought up every name we could imagine, and nothing was panning out,” she says. “Nobody was the right fit. Then one night at the Opera I was talking about the problem to our concertmaster, Kay Stern, and she said, ‘Well, have you thought about Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg?’ I said, ‘Oh come on, you’re crazy.’ And she said, ‘Well, she can’t play the Bruch Concerto her whole life.’ Kay knew her from their days at Juilliard and gave me her number. It took me four days to work up the nerve to call her, but when I did we talked for an hour – it was as if I’d known her for years.”

Salerno-Sonnenberg says she was intrigued by the prospect of trying something new but doubtful about whether it would be either economically or practically feasible.

“This was something I had never considered, and with my schedule as a soloist, it seemed like being a music director of anything would be out of the question. I met with the committee in New York and I said, ‘If only you guys had come to me six or seven years from now, when I was thinking of going a little easier on the solo stuff, then this offer would be really perfect.’ But in the end, just in order to have some sort of resolution to our meeting, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll do one gig.’”

That gig, a dynamic if unruly programme of Bach and Mendelssohn crowned by a resplendent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C, set things in motion in ways that no one could quite anticipate.

“Musically the experience was amazing, and it remains that way,” says Salerno-Sonnenberg, speaking in the hyper-caffeinated torrent of words that characterises her conversation. “But I had no idea what I was getting into. I’d never been a concertmaster of anything, not since I was 11 and played with my elementary school orchestra. I thought, I’ll put together some programmes, I’ll do four concerts a year, how hard could it be? I didn’t understand how completely this would occupy my being.”

In addition to the work that goes into the actual concerts, Salerno-Sonnenberg seems herself as an ambassador and travelling advocate for the orchestra – which is why this may have been the best possible time for her to sign on.

“I can’t be a retired soloist and help my orchestra,” she says. “I can’t be in academia and help them. I need to be out there in people’s faces, at Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center, talking about this band and how great it is.”

The New Century Chamber Orchestra could certainly use the help. It was founded in 1992 by two local freelancers, cellist Miriam Perkoff and bassist Wieslaw Pogorzelski, together with violinist Stuart Canin who became the group’s first music director. He was succeeded in 1999 by Krista Bennion Feeney, who is currently concertmaster of the Mostly Mozart Festival and co-concertmaster of the Orchestra of St Luke’s. The orchestra made a few recordings, including a splendid Grammy-nominated Shostakovich disc in 1996 on the New Albion label, and undertook some limited touring. But for the most part, the fervor and excellence of its performances remained something of a secret, even among the music-hungry audiences of the Bay Area.

“When we started looking for a new music director,” says executive director Parker Monroe, “there was a clear consensus that this was a truly great ensemble and one that had done some fabulous things, but that it wasn’t achieving its full potential. We needed some dynamism, someone to rally around, and Nadja was the clear consensus choice.”

Hiring Salerno-Sonnenberg was a financial commitment as well. (She’s in the middle of a three-year contract, which all parties say is likely to be renewed.) Although neither Monroe nor board president Paula Gambs would comment on her salary, both acknowledged that signing her required an extra effort by the orchestra’s donors, including billionaire philanthropist Gordon Getty.

But Monroe says Salerno-Sonnenberg’s presence is already paying for itself, in the form of increased ticket income, subscription renewals and individual contributions. Part of that, by all accounts, is attributable to Salerno-Sonnenberg’s fiendish work ethic.

“She’s always coming up with new ideas,” says violinist Harms. “It can be hard to keep up with her sometimes, because she’s already onto next year while you’re still learning this year’s music. She’s already learnt it, she knows it, and she’s moved on.”

“For me,” says Salerno-Sonnenberg, “this is repertoire that I would never have learnt otherwise, because there’d be no reason to. The Dvorak Serenade, for example – it’s a standard work, everyone knows it, the orchestra can play it in their sleep. But I’ve never played it! And now I have to learn it and memorise it and lead the performance in a way that brings something new to it. It’s difficult to juggle that with a solo career, because it means two separate sets of repertoire, and there are only so many hours in a day. But this is so rewarding – not every minute, obviously, but so much of the time.

“What excites me is not what I am, but what I won’t become if I don’t do this now.”