Music News & Reviews

Musical variety continues to spice up life of classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg maintains a solo career while also working with the orchestra.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg maintains a solo career while also working with the orchestra.

If you were the proverbial fly on the wall in the home of a young Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, you might not hear — at least, not initially — the sounds that led to her reputation as one of the world's foremost classical violinists. But you probably would sense the stylistic variety that is reflected in the repertoires she now helps design with New Century Chamber Orchestra.

"When I was young, you would not believe the variety of music going on in my house in the same day," said Salerno-Sonnenberg, 52. "You would be hearing opera. You would be hearing me practicing classical violin. You would be hearing Neapolitan folk songs. And you would be hearing Led Zeppelin. All of this was going on in my house. This is the way I grew up, so I had all of that in my ear already. I just incorporated it into my solo career and, certainly, I brought what I know to the orchestra.

"When I was young, I started as a soloist and continued to be a soloist in a strictly classical realm. But I eventually expanded my horizons and began to think differently and play differently from the bread-and-butter classical concertos. So, yes, variety has always been a part of my life."

The stylistic reach that Salerno-Sonnenberg, who was born in Rome but moved to New Jersey as a child, intends as music director of the conductor-less, San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra is perhaps best showcased in its 2009 album Together. It boasts Romanian folk dances by Béla Bartók, the brilliant Argentine tango music of Ástor Piazzolla, George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess classic Bess, You Is My Woman Now and the premiere of a chamber piece by Clarice Assad.

"I refuse to be labeled in any kind of way as far as repertoire" said Salerno-Sonnenberg, who trained at Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School. "It's easy to say an orchestra specializes in contemporary music or specializes in Baroque music. This is an orchestra that specializes in everything. And because of my programming choices, the repertoire that we play is absolutely A to Z. And I love that. We just keep growing and growing and growing, logistically speaking, to where the orchestra is so highly regarded, to where the playing is just so stellar and, these days, constant.

"It's like being a parent in many senses because what you want to do is get your child to a point where they are independent. Then you feel that you might have done your job. To make a career is difficult; to sustain it is more difficult. If this in an orchestra that tours, if this is an orchestra that records, if this is an orchestra that has a huge radio presence, if this is an orchestra which is highly regarded, then the challenge remains to keep that status. And that's what we have accomplished."

One of her priorities during her five-season association with the o rchestra has been a residency that brings existing and commissioned works of a composer into its seasonal repertoire. For its current winter tour, Salerno-Sonnenberg relies on the help of two previous featured composers: Assad, who arranged the aria from her fellow Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, and the Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy-winning William Bolcom, whose Romanza for Solo Violin and String Orchestra will feature Salerno-Sonnenberg as soloist.

"Clarice was our first season's featured composer. And this is an enormous talent. She is just an extraordinary composer and, I think, probably, the greatest living arranger around today. For our third season, she actually made an arrangement for string orchestra, percussion and piano of Pictures at an Exhibition," Salerno-Sonnenberg said of Modest Mussorgsky famously dense work. "Can you possibly imagine that? A string orchestra playing Pictures at an Exhibition is ridiculous. But it worked because we had the extreme talent of that young lady. But that's what I gravitate towards — that sky's-the-limit kind of thinking.

"As for Bill Bolcom, here is a man that can write an oratorio and an opera and then a cabaret song. He's very much like Bernstein in that sense. His style is not relegated to one type of writing. So the concerto itself encompasses that. None of the three movements sound anything like the previous one, and I love that about Bill's music. He is a typical example of what sits well and naturally with me."

Also on Friday's program will be Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings, which is featured on the orchestra's 2010 concert recording, Live.

"It all started with my solo career, which remains my essence," Salerno-Sonnenberg said. "Now I've had this orchestra for five years, which is such an enormous part of my life. There's not a day that goes by that I'm not working in some capacity for the orchestra. And, plus I have my label," she said of NSS Music, which released Together and Live. "Then there is all the regular stuff that everybody has to do. So to be able to juggle it all, I think, keeps me young. And it's all very gratifying, especially when you see such positive results."


Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. Jan.18

Where: Norton Center for the Arts' Newlin Hall, 600 W. Walnut St., Danville

Tickets: $28-$55; available by calling 1-877-448-7469 or at