Young virtuoso in the old-fashioned fiery mold. Violinist Salerno-Sonnenberg dazzles like a Liszt or Paganini

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

You should have seen her stride out on stage in a flame-colored chiffon dress, swing her violin up on her shoulder like a baseball bat, and hit a Mozart home run with his Third Violin Concerto. The fans in the bleachers at Kennedy Center Concert Hall went wild. That was four years ago, when Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, a violinist and New York Yankees fan, was 22. But the applause for the young virtuoso keeps on building. She is booked solid for concerts through next year. Last night in New York she played the Mendelssohn violin concerto as soloist with the London Philharmonic at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is not yet a hyphenated household name, but TV audiences have grown accustomed to her face on Johnny Carson's ``Tonight'' show, in a ``60 Minutes'' profile, and on PBS in a ``Mostly Mozart'' concert broadcast from Lincoln Center. Commentator Patrick Watson called her Bach A-minor Violin Concerto ``daring to the point of madness.''

For that Bach concerto, she wore a black silk jump suit with black and gold paisley bolero jacket, black heels, and gold dangling earrings. Not exactly a traditional concert gown, but then, she's not a traditional violinist.

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As conductor Gerard Schwartz raised the baton, she looked back at him over her violin shoulder, her large brown eyes wide and excited. When the music began to flow, she went with it, swaying, bending with it. A few times she winced, eyes squeezed shut. But there were ecstatic moments, too, when her faced flooded with joy and she seemed to be singing a duet with the violin. For the audience, given the gift of seeing seeing how deeply she feels, it is easy to understand conductor Michael Tilson Thomas's comment: ``She is the music.''

This volatile musician once told an interviewer: ``I feel possessed when I play.'' When asked to elaborate, she tells a Monitor interviewer, ``Possessed, meaning that everything is one, the orchestra I'm playing with, the piece I'm playing, the conductor I'm working with, the violin under my chin, and the sounds that are coming out. Everything is just one. I'm sure everybody in classical music has a word for it. I call it playing in the zone. What a feeling! It makes you feel like everything you have ever done in your whole life is worth it.''

Nadja breezed into our interview on a Manhattan day that was filled with silver rain. She plunked down on a velvet couch to pose for photos but said no when offered a comb to run through rain-bedraggled hair. And she balked at discussing the way she looks on stage:

``It's not that interesting. ... It's just that I'm young, I'm making my mark, I'm out there ... and still pretty much of a newcomer. People will bug me about it - critics will bug me about it ... for another seven years, and then they'll leave me alone, like they leave [Itzhak] Perlman alone, like they leave Andr'e Watts alone. That's the way I play, that's it. She cares only about what the critics say of her playing.

But what they have to say about her playing is inseparable from what they have to say about her personality. New York Times critic Tim Page wrote: ``Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg has a talent so intense and original that it is positively frightening, noting, ``Yet every time I hear [her] play, I am more convinced that she is an extraordinary violinist, with a genuine artistic personality in the grand manner.

Los Angeles Times critic Martin Bernheimer called her ``a phenomenally promising musician who played with the security and sensitivity of a mature veteran of many Mozartean wars.''

She looked more like the star of an MTV music video than a mature veteran the day of our interview: suited up in a black turtleneck and vest and black pants trimmed with giant silver zippers. Her eyes are the same bittersweet chocolate color as her hair, but she wears green contacts and says she ``wouldn't sue'' if she's called green-eyed. Her voice is low but not dulcet. She's got a hard-edged, street-smart accent with a little swagger in it - except when she talks about something she loves, about Mozart, for instance, which offers a clue to what she's trying to do as a performer:

``Mozart's music is so pure ... the purest form of music there is. It's completely virginal. It's so pure it's extremely intense ... there are no flaws. That's what a perfect, pure version is. It doesn't get much better than Mozart.''

Another clue: ``Practically everything I do is out of love. It is my top priority. It's why I play music.''

Who, she asks, would put up with the life style - the tough months on the road, missing friends, family, playing baseball, the Met, and trolling for bluefish, if it weren't for love. She does it ``because I love to perform. I love to bring great music to people everywhere.''

She has just cut her first record, for Angel, with Gerard Schwartz conducting the New York Chamber Orchestra. Mr. Schwartz says, ``She's a pleasure to work with, a very instinctive musician. She does things from truly feeling them deeply and has one of the strongest musical personalities around....'' He adds, ``There's something fresh and untainted about her playing that makes it sound almost naive, committed.''

Nadja was, after all, only 20 when she won the coveted Naumburg International Violin Competition in New York, which rocketed her to fame. She was the youngest ever to win it, as well as the youngest, at 8, ever to study at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; at 14 she left Curtis to take lessons with the celebrated violin teacher Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard. But in her late teens she stopped practicing and became a violin dropout, totally unprepared to enter the Naumburg.

But she did it anyway: ``My love of music won out, basically, and my complete, utter hatred of waste. One day I woke up and said, `Look, stop it!' She practiced 12 hours a day (four is normal) for weeks before the Naumburg.

She won, recalls Ms. DeLay, despite a long list of things to learn. DeLay says, ``It wasn't a question of reviewing things already prepared. She had to start from scratch.'' She adds that Nadja's ``special gift is a kind of dramatic, operatic style.'' Not surprising for a young virtuoso, who admits, ``I'm an opera freak - `Der Rosenkavalier,' `Turandot,' `Tosca,' `Don Giovanni.'''

DeLay points out, ``Nadja probably has the most successful career at this point of all the women violinists, much more successful than most of the men. It's a difficult field for women.'' DeLay recalls, ``When I was young, there was no point in any of us [women] ever thinking about auditioning for an established symphony. ... We knew they would never give us an audition.'' Now, she says, ``The important thing is not whether you run into it, but how you meet it. ... Nadja is a very cheerful person and a very determined person, and she's going to try to do it even if told she can't.'' Another factor was that ``her mother thought she could. That's terribly important, that you have a parent who thinks that.''

Nadja was born in Rome to an American mother who is a pianist and music teacher and to a Russian singer father who left the family when she was three months old. She began taking violin lessons at 4, but she showed no special talent until she was 7, when her teacher said, ``This child is going to outgrow me in a couple of years. Do something with her talent.'' Mrs. Salerno-Sonnenberg did: She came back to America and raised her family in the middle-class suburban neighborhood of Cherry Hill, N.J., to allow her daughter the music education that has shaped her life.

``I always thought this child has such a love for music, she'll pay a higher price later'' if she doesn't play, says her mother.

``The violin is, like, her life. She loves being able to make music.''

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