Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, a polarizing figure in classical music, plays along with the UNCG Symphony Orchestra.
by Daniel Wirtheim
It was near the dead end of “Winter,” during one of the last voracious bursts of Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas when a hair from her violin bow snapped. But Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg didn’t notice. She only dug harder into her violin, bracing the current of sound that she had built in a fury as the stray horsehair waved above her like a war banner.
Thirty minutes before the horsehair broke, the Gate City Camerata were playing the waltzes of Arnold Schoenberg, 10 light and touching pieces. It was UNCG’s Oct. 23 University Performing Arts Series performance featuring the violinist with the UNCG Symphony Orchestra and Gate City Camerata. The camerata — a group of 18 UNCG student and faculty members — sat erect, moving as a tightly disciplined ensemble. A few of them adjusted their eyeglasses after each waltz, and when they finished Sonnenberg walked onstage.
Her pants were pink, more vivid than a tickle-me and just short of a hot pink. She was slightly slouched, her walk relaxed but purposeful. She stopped at the center of the ensemble and placed a white cloth on her violin where her left cheek would meet the wood.
The violinists of the camerata began the first of Astor Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas with dissonant, hissing sounds as the double bass picked up a rhythm dropped by Sonnenberg’s swaying hips. It was a bold choice for a concert with university students. Paizzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas is a mean composition, four tightly wound tango pieces that make Vivaldi’s Four Seasons sound like elevator music. Played together, the tangoes are a turbulent ride of hard-hitting crashes and major lifts with the blustery kind of energy that can break a bow hair.
Sonnenberg looked to the bass, pumping her body up and down with the rhythm. She let out a guttural “humph,” as her body dived low with a voracious burst of notes. She moved herself up and down like one might if undergoing an exorcism, at times both of her feet leaving the ground at once. With so many opportunities for devastation, her performance carried the intensity of a high-wire act.
Besides being a composition bred for devilishly bold musicians, Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas has its share of slow, sweeping moments that Sonnenberg played standing erect, her dark and fierce browline raised and mouth twisted with concentration. It was far from the image on the program that UNCG provided, the picture of a seemingly pleasant and smiling violinist.
Sonnenberg is 54 and the director of the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra. In her early years she was a child prodigy abandoned by her father and the youngest-ever winner of the Naumburg International Violin Competition, which gave her an entrée to Carnegie Hall and flung her into the limelight as a controversial yet extremely talented player. It was when she was 32 that Sonnenberg badly injured her pinky finger while cutting onions and had the fingertip surgically reattached. She had almost fully recovered when she attempted suicide, but the gun never fired.
Throughout the entire performance at Aycock Auditorium, she didn’t speak a word. But her personal demons were evident in her sneer, in her dark eyes, and the way she thrashed the air above her head with the violin bow.
After the Gate City Camerata finished the fourth season, the UNCG Symphony Orchestra took the stage with the classic symphonic sound of Bela Bartok. They played Dance Suite, three sweeping numbers worlds away from the dark appeal of Sonnenberg playing Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas.
After Dance Suite, Sonnenberg joined the orchestra, standing next to the conductor, for Max Bruch’s “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor.” She traded licks with the orchestra, a seemingly docile affair for the wild woman that snapped a bow hair.
Watching her with the Symphonic Orchestra was a nice sendoff but a weak cure for the listener’s hangover, the result of an exhilarating wall of sound Sonnenberg had created in Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas.
The orchestra is primed for success, a group of college kids that might have successful careers ahead as session musicians. The way Sonnenberg plays cannot be taught. In her delirious performance anything can happen, even a hair from a bow might snap. And that’s no big deal for her. She only bends down to bite the stray hair off and raises her bow again, a toast to the demons that spur her on.