When Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg takes the stage Friday night the way Hurricane Michelle storms a quiet Cuban cove, she may recall the first time she offered Brahms to an audience. Shamed by their laughter, she ran home in tears -- but not before she gave the stunned listeners a Sicilian-accented tongue-lashing.
It was a grade school show-and-tell and her favorite thing to share at the time was a recording of the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, according to Speaking in Strings, an Academy Award--nominated documentary of her life. This weekend, the illustrious world-class violinist joins the Colorado Springs Symphony and conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith in a performance of the Brahms Concerto as well as Elgar's Enigma Variations.
"She's Italian opera in Italian leather," says Todd Scarce, the Symphony's marketing director. "If you don't see anything else this year, you must see Nadja with the Symphony. ... She'll blow your socks off."
Scarce is not given to hyperbole; after all, he's promoted dozens of musical organizations in his career. Still, he understands the unique power of this musician, who the documentary calls "a bad girl" and "an escape artist that makes you want to leave the world."
Understandably, some classical music aristocrats might be miffed by a virtuoso who brandishes Camel cigarettes and enjoys the occasional gator hunt. She's a woman with an unconventional flair, who's not only passionate about her music, but also her cats, opera and the Yankees (the film purports that she displays a team photograph in her violin case).
As such, it's easy to understand Nadja's passion for Brahms, who was also known to break a few rules in his time. The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, however, reveals the confidence and maturity of a 45-year-old composer who had evolved from a brilliant pianist to the master of an orchestral sound that is as warm as it is voluminous. The third movement, a rondo immediately recognized for its energetic Hungarian influence, leans toward the triumphant, rather than the tragic.
The Elgar Variations complements the profoundly poetic Brahms with charming British elegance. Enigma refers to a musical trick of taking a well-known melody -- some suspect Auld Lang Syne in this case -- and creating an introduction from its counterpoint. Elgar created 14 variations on this theme, each one inspired by a dear relationship: with his wife, a possible old flame, friends, and even "Dan, a bulldog, pulled from the river Wye after falling in."
Nadja, like Variations, is a study in contrasts. She is devoted to the lonely and demanding work of a soloist, but longs for a stable family life; she mourns her father, who left when she was three months old, yet admits she chose not to seek him out when he was alive. An emigrant from Italy in early childhood, she grew up feeling like an outsider, yet soon outshone her peers as the youngest recipient of the Walter W. Naumberg International Violin Competition in 1981. (Since then she was named Ovations Debut Recording Artist of the Year in 1988, has been awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize and has recorded 15 albums.)
Although much has been made of her failed suicide attempt in 1995, an earthy humor could be considered her most endearing and enduring quality. When she's not performing soul- throttling music, she's commenting sardonically about a world beyond her control. "Anything my monster tells me is monotone, calm and logical," she says of her fear of failure on the stage. "I don't believe this monster will ever conquer me. My will to survive is stronger."
In light of the devastation borne by her familiar New York, Nadja's performance this weekend could be perceived as a counter-attack against inhumanity by the supernal power of melody -- or at least a medicinal tonic for our spiritual wounding. Her mother calls Nadja's cathartic playing "cleansing . . . like confession." Nadja calls it food for her own soul that has "saved me so many times. Without music I'd surely be dead by now."
Not only is she still standing (and swaying and bowing and whirling), but when the curtain goes down on her Brahms this weekend, the audience will predictably respond with cheers, not the jeers once dished out by mean-spirited kids to the new girl at school. In the grown-up show-and-tell of concert halls, Nadja wows the cynical, the jaded and the somnolent with the sheer force of her fiery vitality. What hasn't killed Nadja now makes every performance stronger.