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As violinist matures, so does her music

She's done an album of gypsy music and performed with a bluegrass virtuoso. Now she's getting back to Brahms.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 24, 2002

[Publicity photo]
“I hadn’t played the Brahms in many, many seasons, and it was really calling out to me last year, so I worked hard to get it booked this season,” says violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's recording of the Brahms violin concerto came out when her career was starting out in the 1980s. This weekend, she'll be playing the work with the Florida Orchestra.

"My Brahms now is very different," Salerno-Sonnenberg says, reflecting on the concerto that was her favorite as a teenager, studying with the great violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School.

"I recorded the Brahms when I was in my early 20s, and I was kind of overwhelmed to record it so young. I remember being awed, and I think it was a bit careful. Today, it's not as slow."

Salerno-Sonnenberg, who turned 41 recently, is one of the most well-known classical artists of her generation, with 20 recordings to her credit, but she is not currently signed with a record label.

"I'm not exclusively with anyone," she says. "I feel lucky to have made as many as I did. Unfortunately, the recording business is just a shambles right now. There was a time earlier on in my career when I was making two albums a year. Now I pick and choose the projects."

Salerno-Sonnenberg's latest recording project was an album of gypsy music with the Brazilian guitarist brothers Sergio and Odaire Assad. Released on the Nonesuch label, it was critically well-received and sold well. There's even a vocal on the final track, Somogy's Dream, that sounds like the violinist moonlighting as a torch singer.

"That's a secret," she says, laughing. "A secret guest artist."

In a similar crossover vein, Salerno-Sonnenberg has been performing a lot of concerts with bluegrass virtuoso Mark O'Connor on his Double Fiddle Concerto, which she hopes will soon be recorded. What she would also like to do is record more of the standard violin repertoire, but the major labels aren't very interested in what she might do with concertos of Bach or Mozart or Tchaikovsky.

"Unfortunately, the stock of standard repertoire is full," she says. "So for someone like me who has not recorded the Tchaikovsky, which I'd really like to record at some point, that is a very difficult thing to get going."

This year, Salerno-Sonnenberg is playing the Brahms concerto frequently. Earlier this month, she played it with the Colorado Symphony and the Leigh Valley Chamber Orchestra in Pennsylvania. She also is scheduled to play it later with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

"I hadn't played the Brahms in many, many seasons, and it was really calling out to me last year, so I worked hard to get it booked this season," she says. "It's like a completely new piece for me."

With the Florida Orchestra, she'll be working for the first time with guest conductor Pavel Kogan, who is a candidate for the music directorship being vacated by Jahja Ling. What does a soloist look for in a conductor?

"For me, the most important thing is some kind of feeling of comfort offstage," she says. "That way you feel comfortable requesting something onstage or working on something onstage. I like to meet maybe an hour before we go in for the first rehearsal and talk about the piece and play for him or her."

Two years ago, a documentary film about Salerno-Sonnenberg, Speaking in Strings, was nominated for an Academy Award. Made by Paola di Florio, a childhood friend of the violinist, it was a harrowing portrait of artistic burnout.

"It was a very difficult time for me," she says. "Everything bad that could have happened happened in six months."

One of the revelations of the documentary was Salerno-Sonnenberg's suicide attempt when she was suffering from depression. Also covered was a scary accident when the violinist accidentally chopped off the tip of her left little finger while cooking a Christmas dinner. The injury threatened her ability to perform.

"It's 100 percent recovered now. But that accident with the finger was a heinous thing for me. I was very lucky," she says.

Speaking in Strings is still shown on cable TV's HBO Signatures, Bravo and the Sundance Channel, and is out on video. But its subject now regards it as snapshot from a time in her life that thankfully is past.

"That film is what it is because that's when the director called and wanted to start doing it," she says. "If she called today it would be a completely different movie."


The Florida Orchestra performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Mahaffey Theater, 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall and 7:30 p.m. Monday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $20-$38. (813) 286-2403 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286,

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