Stringing life together

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
has battled her demons
and is an artist in demand

By Gary C.W. Chun

WE SHOULD'VE stopped pegging Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as "the bad girl of the violin" years ago. After all, we're talking about a popular virtuoso now in her 40s, a mature classical artist.

It's been 10 years since the violinist last played in the islands, but, with every passing year, Salerno-Sonnenberg has distanced herself from initial notoriety as a physical and unorthodox performer and a woman who has battled personal demons in a very public way, thanks to a riveting 1999 documentary made by a friend of hers, Paola Di Florio.

The Oscar-nominated "Speaking in Strings" was a sympathetic depiction of a woman on the road back to personal and professional recovery. After a debilitating bout of depression due to family and relationship issues in early October, 1995, she felt suicide was her only way out. She had a small caliber handgun given to her by a friend for protection purposes. Instead, she turned the gun on herself -- and it jammed.

This cry for help followed another crisis the year before. While preparing Christmas dinner for friends, she accidentally sliced off the tip of her pinkie on her left hand, leaving her to wonder if she could ever play again after months of recovery.

Even with her triumphant return to Carnegie Hall after the suicide attempt, Salerno-Sonnenberg was still occasionally branded either as a master violinist or a charlatan. She had, and always will have, a commanding live presence on stage whose impassioned playing either drives listeners to enthusiastic huzzahs or sour distraction.

But time and longevity is on her side. Three years ago she was honored, along with fellow violinists Pamela Frank and Sarah Chang, with the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize. The prize is awarded to instrumentalists who have demonstrated "outstanding achievement and excellence in music." Their names are now etched in gold on a wall of the august New York City concert hall.

In August, Salerno-Sonnenberg performed a well-received program dubbed "Fiddlers Three" with jazz artist Regina Carter and Celtic musician Eileen Ivers with the Boston Pops orchestra.

Salerno-Sonnenberg also continues to do work with smaller groups and ensembles. Her most recent collaboration with Brazilian guitarist brothers Sérgio and Odair Assad has been especially fruitful. (As a side note, listen to her opening cadenza on "Istanbul: Awakening and Turkish Dance" on their Nonesuch recording -- you will never hear a more awe-inspiring four minutes of music. Salerno-Sonnenberg awakens from her violin all manner of mood, from quiet reflection to confusion, yearning and fiery determination. It perfectly encapsulates her command of the instrument while seizing the drama of the moment.)

Even so, she continues to play the role of the touring guest soloist, in demand by orchestras around the world, including Honolulu's. (She is certainly making the effort to reach Honolulu; she flies out of an engagement in Rochester, New York directly to Honolulu, then back to the East Coast the following week to a gig in Newark, N.J.)

She and the Honolulu Symphony will be performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, always a popular composition, written to highlight any soloist's skills. It's a piece she will perform 11 times this season.

"IT JUST happened that, with the orchestras' seasons on this tour schedule, it was highly requested," she said by phone from her Michigan home last month. "It's a masterpiece, you know, arguably the best piece for the violin. It's fine with me since it seems to be the most requested thing every season, next to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major. I've played it over and over on a nightly basis for so long, but certain pieces like this one last for a good reason."

Salerno-Sonnenberg makes for an engaging interview. When she misses a 7:30 a.m. appointment due to a long meeting, she's effusive in her apologies. She's forthcoming and her New Jersey-accented voice sometimes tumbles out of her with a nervous energy.

"I've always enjoyed playing both as a soloist with orchestras around the world and the smaller ensemble work -- it's nice to have a balance, but I've been trained, since I was young, to play the standard repertoire."

Her career began back in 1981, when she won the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition as an impressionable teenager.

"The music business is different now," she said. "You're almost forced to branch out, but I've been fortunate in the choice of projects I've done. I will continue to do original projects, like the Assad album (I'll help premiere Sérgio's 'Triple Concerto' on a small U.S. tour next year). So it's good to branch out -- it keeps one alive.

"I've always been a very strong player, either accepted or rejected, adored or hated -- it comes with the territory."

She then says in her glib way, "I'd rather people despise me than get no response from them at all.

"It's the only thing I know. I'm an instinctive person, I need to feel something in my playing. With some people, while they may feel enormously, they have trouble conveying it in their music. I hope that by listening to me, audiences will get some sense of the piece I'm playing."

After "Speaking in Strings" was released, Salerno-Sonnenberg feels that her detractors had a better handle on what she is as an artist. "People in the media had a greater understanding of me," she said. "My critics were always under the impression that I created this on-stage persona -- that I calculatedly thought 'I'll wear this, play this, or say this just to get a rise from them.' That is so not me!"

Today, Salerno-Sonnenberg sounds at relative peace with her life. "I'm grateful that the tough times happened to me -- that I had to live through them -- because I've found it was invaluable in becoming the person I am at this period of my life.

"With the documentary, my friend just happened to film it at that time of my life. If it were done today, it would possibly be not as interesting!"

WE SPOKE to Salerno-Sonnenberg the day after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That day a year ago still weighed heavily on her, bringing on a flood of memories, accompanied by feelings of terror and anxiety.

"I still think of myself as a native New Yorker and I felt like I wanted to do something, but just couldn't. It happened when I was in the city and I had to fly out two days later to make a concert date and I didn't want to leave. I love the city and feel a loyalty to it. Now, it was hurt and damaged.

"Needless to say, it was difficult trying to get a flight out. Watching all of this happen after the attacks, I was feeling, 'God, your job looks so trivial next to all this. Who cares about playing my stupid violin?

"I think I was going to play the Mendelssohn concerto somewhere down south, and here it was, Sept. 13, at the Newark, N.J., airport, looking totally deserted, excluding Army personnel and their dogs. I remember waiting at the gate, the flight's already delayed, and I'm looking across the concourse into a restaurant window, and I see knives on the table and, I mean, if I noticed it ... " Her voice trails off and lets go of the frightening image. I can hear her trying to light a cigarette.

She quickly recomposes herself. "But when I got there, the orchestra was grateful of my being there, and the audience packed the hall. Every single person I met said they were happy I was there.

"But there was a time I was extremely scared to be on airline flights, a good six-seven months. I would always look at fellow passengers with some suspicion. Still, in concert after concert, people were happy that I showed up and it was the only time the critics left me alone. I guess people needed the distraction I provided."

Now most of the fear has passed and she looks forward to playing in Honolulu, remembering the wonderful time she had here 10 years ago.

"I feel less afraid about most things -- I've developed a thick skin. With age and longevity, you learn your life lessons. The priority is always for the concert. The playing is important -- that, and trying to stay healthy. And I've found a sense of peace with myself and people."

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Performs with the Honolulu Symphony and conductor Derrick Inouye

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
When: 8 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $17, $29, $34, $44 and $59, available at the symphony ticket office at Dole Cannery, 650 Iwilei Road, the Blaisdell box office, Ticket Plus outlets and online at
Call: 792-2000

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