Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has attracted the attention of classical music concertgoers for her virtuostic and emotive performances; her highly individual interpretations have been the focus of both negative and positive criticism. Nadja has surprised audiences with her audacious concert attire and endeared herself to them with her warmth and interesting personality.
Salerno-Sonnenberg was born in Rome, Italy, to an Italian pianist and her husband, a Russian singer who deserted the family when his daughter was three months old. Salemo-Sonnenberg’s name is a composite of her mother’s maiden name and the name of her stepfather, who also left the family.
Nadja’s exposure to music began early at the family’s Sunday afternoon gatherings, which were attended by friends who would come to hear her mother play the piano and her older brother, Eric, sing. Friends suggested that Nadja might feel left out, hidden in the shadow of her brother’s natural musical talent, and suggested that she be given an instrument to play. Thus, at five years old, Nadja found a $40 violin and bow thrust into her hands, and she began lessons with a member of the Italian Radio Orchestra. The young girl’s talent was soon evident, and upon the suggestion of her violin teacher, the entire family—mother, stepfather, brother, and grandparents—moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, so that Nadja could get better musical training.
At age eight Nadja became the youngest student at the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the most prestigious conservatories in the United States, to which only the best students are admitted and awarded full tuition scholarships. It was a rather overwhelming experience to learn English and study with students often twice her size and age. In the public school, where she went to study academic subjects, Nadja was picked on by the other students until they recognized her athletic ability. Overall, Nadja adapted well and studied at Curtis for six years with Jascha Brodsky. She was, however, reprimanded several times for such practical jokes as dropping water-filled plastic bags from a four-story roof on unsuspecting targets and hiding in the attic-like space enclosing the organ’s pipes to read comic books.
Nadja made her solo debut at age ten with the Philadelphia Orchestra, during which she audaciously waved at her friends in the audience. Peter Schoenbach, then dean of the Curtis Pre-College Division, described the young violinist to Ovation writer Charles Passy: “Nadja was a real live wire. She kept us busy, but we got a kick out of watching. There were inklings of a major career brewing. She had an intuitive understanding of music. And she had a goal. It was just a question of getting there.” Her goals, as stated in a grammar school essay:
Born c 1961, in Rome, Italy; came to United States c 1969; daughter of Josephine (a pianist and teacher) Salerno; father was a singer; stepfather’s surname, Sonnenberg. Education: Attended Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Pa., 1969-75, and Juiffiard School, New York City, 1975-81.
Began playing violin at the age of five; made debut with Philadelphia Orchestra at age ten; has performed in concert throughout North America and Europe. Has appeared on several television programs, including The Tonight Show, 60 Minutes, and Live from Lincoln Center.
Awards: Winner of Walter Naumburg International Violin Competition, 1981; Avery Fisher Career Grant, 1983.
to be a space traveler, an athlete, and a famous concert artist. “I want a life no one has ever led before,” she told Life reporter Rosemarie Robotham.
In 1975 New Jersey instrument maker Sergio Presson gave Nadja a $15, 000 violin, paid for by an anonymous donor, and the young prodigy entered the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan. There she studied with the renowned Dorothy DeLay, who had taught such violin greats as Itzhak Perlman and Shlomo Mintz. DeLay guided Salemo-Sonnenberg’s artistic progress, fostering her individuality. Nadja commented on DeLay’s training to Instrumentalist writer Judith Wyatt: “I always did what I wanted to do, and Miss DeLay knew not to interfere with my ideas. She brought out the best in every one of us and didn’t have a set method in the way she taught. She never said ‘you do this passage this way because this is the way it’s been done before.’ She knew I had enough imagination to do it my way and if it didn’t work, I would find out on my own. I was a very stubborn student.” In 1984, looking back on Nadja’s studies with her, DeLay told Barbara Jepson of Connoisseur: “Her sound has developed beautifully.…She has an independent imagination; her ideas are very individual now.”
Unlike some Juilliard students who limit their activities entirely to music, Salerno-Sonnenberg took advantage of the cultural life of New York to attend operas and ballets, to visit museums, and to enjoy sports. Nor does she limit her musical taste to the classical genre. She listens to music from many eras and many styles, including pieces by Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, the Beatles, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Goodman, Stevie Wonder, and Oscar Peterson. She also calls herself an “opera freak” and is inspired by the celebrated soprano Maria Callas. Salerno-Sonnenberg believes that everything goes into her musical performances, from her playing softball to listening to rock music, to getting drunk. She asked Washington Post writer Joseph McLellan: “How do you know what to say in the music if you spend all your time practicing instead of living?”
While at Juilliard, Nadja’s stubbornness turned to rebellion, and for seven months in 1981 she quit playing violin except to earn money for rent. DeLay finally gave her an ultimatum: Work or quit as my student. Salerno-Sonnenberg then committed herself to a life as a musician. She began practicing for the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg International Competition only a few months before the contest was to take place. In what she calls “a sick time” the violinist secluded herself, practicing twelve hours a day, binging on fried sausages, Coke, and Baskin-Robbins peanut butter and chocolate ice cream. She only came out for lessons with DeLay and to do her laundry.
Salerno-Sonnenberg’s intense work paid off. She won the coveted Naumburg prize, which includes a $3000 cash award, two recitals at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, a recording with the Musical Heritage Society, and orchestral and recital appearances throughout the United States. “She simply wowed the audience,” foundation director Lucy Rowan Mann told Robotham. “There is something electric that happens with only a very few performers. Nadja has it in spades.”
Since then Salerno-Sonnenberg, who left Juilliard without graduating, has maintained a busy concert schedule. She has appeared with the Baltimore Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, Houston Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, Montreal Symphony, New Orleans Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh Symphony. She has also performed in France, Austria, Germany, Canada, Portugal, and the Philippines.
Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performances have stirred controversy. Some critics have praised her virtuostic technique and big silky tone with its highly expressive quality, while others criticize her for immature interpretations and poor stage presence. She has been called a neo-Romantic for her emotive and very individual interpretations, which rarely fail to please audiences—regardless of critics’ comments. To play works of Mozart in such a manner horrifies the “purists,” but Nadja is a risk-taker according to DeLay, who once commented to Leslie Kandell of the New York Times: “Nadja never plays it safe. Nadja very often puts herself in danger, playing as fast as she can move, taking a phrase to a really high point. Or in a slow passage, as she draws the bow across the string, the note gets softer and softer as she sustains the tone longer and longer. You’d think it wouldn’t be possible. It’s breathtaking—the kind of thing you hear opera singers do.
Reviewers seem to focus unjustly on the violinist’s attire and stage presence. They have compared her athletic gait, violin swinging in one hand, to that of Martina Navratilova striding onto a tennis court. They often find her facial expression—grimaces, tears, tightly shut eyes, disheveled hair—distracting. They are also surprised at her choice of attire, which initially included gowns bought at garage sales. Though Nadja has made concessions to the critics’ complaints by buying a gown from Saks and having her auburn hair cut short, she continues to wear slacks and unconventional costumes on stage. “The way I am on stage is what they’re not used to,” she told Wyatt. “Classical music is a business based on tradition. So, for a woman to walk on stage in pants is unheard of. Everybody will just have to get used to it. It’s not any less glamorous, I can assure you. I think a lot of the problem classical music has financially is that not too many people, especially younger people, are interested in finding out about it. You’ve got to attract them to the halls.”
Nadja has become a darling of the media and a happy spokesperson for the cause of classical music. She has appeared several times on The Tonight Show, was the subject of a 60 Minutes program, and appeared on PBS in a “Mostly Mozart” concert broadcast from Lincoln Center. Though she admits that the attention takes away from her practice time and sometimes invades her privacy, she cooperates with the media in order to promote classical music. As she explained to Passy: “To educate an audience, you need to have the publicity. If I’m going to withstand a summer of pressure because ‘60 Minutes’ is following me everywhere, then I’ll do it because it brings classical music to more people. But it’s no fun.”
Nadja fills her leisure time with a variety of hobbies: playing softball, working with ceramics, cooking gourmet meals, fishing, going to beer parties, and shopping at thrift stores. The trumpet is what Nadja calls her “therapy instrument”—a way to have fun with music. Yet she plays well enough to have once performed “Bugler’s Holiday” with Doc Severinsen on The Tonight Show.
Salemo-Sonnenberg is constantly searching for balance in her life, between musical and non-musical activities, her needs and the demands of her profession. She admits that she would not have chosen the violin had she had a choice of an instrument to play, but she is happy to be able to contribute her music to the well-being of the world. Though she sometimes has doubts about the role of the musician when faced with the prospect of global tragedies, she told Wyatt: “What would we do without entertainers? That somebody can come to a concert and for thirty minutes not think of anything but feel happy about listening to a piece of music. I think of it now as a lot more important than I had given it credit for.”
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Denver Post, October 2, 1987.
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Kalamazoo Gazette, January 20, 1988.
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Newsday, June 1, 1987; July 9, 1987.
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Seattle Times, June 5, 1986; October 14, 1986.
Spokane Chronicle, January 24, 1986.
Stagebill, February 1987.
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Stereo Review, February 1988.
Tacoma News Tribune, June 6, 1986.
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—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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