Violinist Salerno-Sonnenberg is still a Seattle favorite, and still delivers

05.19.12
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
The Seattle Times

By Philippa Kiraly

Judging by the almost full house, the applause that greeted her arrival on stage and the tumultuous roars of approval that followed her performance Friday night, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has lost none of her audience appeal, nor any of her magical ability with the violin.

Conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz took the Seattle Symphony podium at Benaroya Hall for her performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the latest of many concerts the two have done together since her debut here in 1984. (The peformance repeats at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.)

Salerno-Sonnenberg has played this concerto countless times, yet it sounded fresh-minted, a marvelous discovery for artist and audience alike. Her opening notes were like a stream of molten silver, a shining thread she returned to frequently in the concerto. Her violin seemed an extension of her body, her fingers and bowing totally easy, no matter how fast, how urgent, how delicate or soft her interpretation of this familiar work. She stood where Schwarz could see and watch her continuously, keeping the orchestra meticulously with her, always under her so that every note she played could be heard.

Salerno-Sonnenberg's fidgeting was the only flaw — fidgeting that included frequent tossing and fussing caused by a hairstyle that let her hair get in her eyes. Shutting the eyes allowed the listener to savor only the exquisite playing.

The Mozart Requiem and "Ave Verum Corpus" followed, in a performance that would have seemed unbalanced were it not for the fine, relaxed, unstrained singing of the Seattle Symphony Chorale. Otherwise the chorus of almost 100 could have drowned the orchestra of 34 players.

Clayton Brainerd's powerful bass-baritone, Benjamin Butterfield's rich tenor, Nancy Maultsby's glorious mezzo-soprano (which made her the perfect Judith in Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle" this week) and Jennifer Zetlan's bubbling soprano are all fine voices. They sang well in the solo or quartet parts, but none had voices really suitable for Mozart.

Luckily, the major vocal role in the Requiem belongs to the chorus, and the Symphony Chorale sang it with tenderness, the sound beautiful, prayerful and expressive. Trained by associate conductor for choral activities Joseph Crnko, the Chorale's sound quality has improved beyond all measure the past few years. Crnko has been conductor of The Northwest Boychoir for a quarter-century, and perhaps it's his great care not to overstrain young voices — while at the same time eliciting beautiful singing from them — that has brought such success to the Symphony Chorale.