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Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: Cause for Celebration

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Jason Victor Serinus

Award–winning violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg not only is a fine artist, but she also gives great interview. In this “on your mark, get set, go” conversation, she discusses her upcoming anniversary leading the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and her feelings about her ensemble.

In the midst of the NCCO’s 20th-anniversary season, you’re celebrating your fourth anniversary as music director and concertmaster. What has it been like to switch from touring as a soloist to playing with the orchestra?

It’s always an amazing feeling to play with the orchestra. You know, I’m a soloist. I’ve been a soloist my whole life. Now I have this orchestra. Playing solo with the orchestra combines my old life with my new life. It’s a phenomenal feeling, especially because we’re all one as a musician.

We are very democratic in our preparation and in rehearsals. Each musician is incredibly talented and extremely intelligent.

Please say more about your experience with the NCCO.

They’re fantastic, truly individually, each one of them. They have strengths in different areas; when you put it all together, it’s really quite a package.

When I first began playing with them, they’d been together 16 years and gone through two music directors. What I felt, the first time I played with them, is that they didn’t believe they were fantastic. I’m not sure why, exactly. The orchestra has been around for a while, and has been a little gem that perhaps has been taken for granted. Then this kind of soloist comes in and says, “Jesus Christ, you people are great!” But I really felt that.

When you take these two elements and put them together, either it’s going to be phenomenal or it’s not. These two forces that came together have extraordinary chemistry. It was a quest for me. When I signed the contract, I felt the group was astonishing, and that it was my responsibility to let as many people on this planet know about their excellence.

That’s one side of the music director’s job. The other side is the music. It’s a huge job. I had no idea. I’d never wanted to be a music director. Musically, their skill was always there; I think I just provide the inspiration to play the way they know they can play. I’m sort of their fearless leader, in that sense.

You have some concertmasters and soloists from other orchestras in there.

We have a guy who comes in from Berlin. Others come from New York, Boston, Washington, and, of course, the Bay Area. This was the case when I came in.

One of the sure signs of how an orchestra is regarded within the industry is when you announce your auditions for openings. This is not an orchestra whose season can sustain someone financially on its own. The season isn’t long enough, but we’re getting there. But to have people come from Europe and all over the United States to audition is very indicative of the buzz on this group.

Let me be very clear: If you are a string player, and you want to be a member of an orchestra, this is the number one job you want to audition for, because of not only the repertoire, but because of the vibrancy with which we make music, and also the fun we have — the joy that’s there. If you end up sitting in the back of some orchestral section, you think, I went to Juilliard for this?

I don’t want to conjecture, because I don’t know. But knowing who’s at the helm of this orchestra, and watching the growth of this ensemble, it feels like the Little Engine that Could. I have to say this because I’m actually editing a movie of the orchestra that I’d like to release this year: If you see the group in action, you realize it’s an ensemble that needs to be seen, as well.

You just do not see, in any kind of ensemble, anywhere, this kind of joy to make music that comes from each and every NCCO member. Combine that with the vitality of how we make music, my leadership, their trust in me, and the excellence of the playing, and this is the job to get. If you go to school and get your degree as a string player, you probably envision something that is this gratifying, rather than just a job.

To be in an ensemble where the playing is of the highest level, and then, on top of that, to be able to have equal say to the person sitting next to you, the person sitting across from you, and your superstar leader — equal word — and then to have as much responsibility as anyone else in the group. ...There’s no one in my group who sits in the back of the section and doesn’t have to practice — hell no, not in my group. To have all of that and the journey of preparing a program, to then walk onstage and have this “you never know what’s going to happen” experience because look who’s sitting in the concertmaster’s chair! This kind of vital music-making experience, which is never the same twice in a row, is a good job.

“Look who’s sitting in the concertmaster’s chair”? Are you copping to the fact that you may be unpredictable?

No, not unpredictable. In fact, I’m probably the most dependable, predictable person in the sense that I am there for them. When we play, I feel like there’s 18 hoses attached to me. We’re very, very, very, very attuned to each other.

What I’m talking about is a trust issue. In the preparation process, we are all equal in our decision-making and our thought process. When it comes time for the performance, we have that foundation underneath us. But they know me, and we may not play a passage exactly as we rehearsed it.

That is where the trust comes in. I can’t explain that; it’s just a musical instinct, and who I am. But the trust in having all those people who are with you getting it, with maybe a flick of my eyebrow or something happens in my shoulder and they’re all there — I’m not waving my arms around, because I’m playing the first violin part, and there is no conductor.

So they’ve learned your body language, even from behind?

Yeah. Behind me is the hardest seat in the orchestra, by the way. It’s interesting that you would even bring that up. We rotate and change things around, because even though I turn as much to the left as possible so that at least my profile can be seen by everybody, much to the chagrin of the audience because they want to see me, still the person behind me has to look at my left hand and the back of my head and get it.

I can’t help but notice that the majority of NCCO’s members are women. The same is true with the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra under Marin Alsop. I assume that a lot of women would prefer to work with a woman conductor or concertmaster or ...

It has nothing to do with that. Wherever you’re going, absolutely not. When I took the job, the orchestra was already as it is.

Do boys shy away?

No, not at all. When we had our cello auditions, we needed two players: one a permanent, and one a temporary to replace a player. The two women we accepted were miles beyond anyone else we auditioned. You want the best players. In fact, one of those players was so spectacular throughout the season that I created another chair to keep her there, and she is now our principal.

I look at the orchestra visually, and it would be great to have a couple more guys. But I can only hire the best player. You’re slapping yourself in the face if you don’t get the best player. Remember, this is not a full orchestra. If you have a section of four players, like the violas and cellos, you’d better make sure every single one of those players is spectacular. Even if they’re Martian, I don’t care. It’s a small section.

No accusation was meant on my part. I often observe that the boys get scared when there are lots of girls.

I don’t think that happens with us. When we have rehearsals, when we have breaks, when we’re all in a bus, it sounds so damn corny, but we are just so easy with each other; it’s a family.

How much touring is NCCO doing these days?

Our first tour happened in 2010–2011, and I’m going to tour them every single season. This year, we have two touring gigs on the West Coast, and five on the road. This is a set-up tour for the East Coast, which is a hard nut to crack. We just had a phenomenally successful Midwest/California tour last season. It was so much fun.

I want to bring them over to the East Coast next year, but the business of music is tough these days. A month after I opened my first season with the NCCO, the economy crashed. It was like, “Wow.” So we’ve been battling this, as has every arts organization. For us to have continually grown and gone forward within this time period is something I am very proud of.

Apart from NCCO, are you doing much solo work?

Oh my God, yes. I have very little free time; it’s a completely full schedule. I mostly play in the States, but this year I’m going to go back to Japan. I’m really happy about that.

I travel constantly. It’s very vibrant. One season for me is a cornucopia of styles of playing and wearing different hats. It keeps everything fresh, that’s for sure. As long as I can get enough sleep, I’m good.