Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is a virtuoso violinist and superstar in the world of classical music. She has been profiled on “60 Minutes” and is the subject of an acclaimed film documentary, Speaking in Strings.
Soloists in the world of chamber music travel often for their concerts. Since 2015, Salerno-Sonnenberg has had a triangular existence linking her home in New York, several periods of two weeks at a time in San Francisco as Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra and sustained stretches in the academic calendar as Resident Artist at the Loyola School of Music New Orleans.
At Loyola she performs, teaches and works with orchestral musicians, faculty and students, and does substantial outreach work in visiting area schools.
On Oct. 2 she’ll perform in a faculty concert at Loyola, and on Nov. 6 will perform in Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” with the university’s chamber orchestra.
“Say ‘New Orleans,’ and people think of Mardi Gras and jazz,” she mused in a telephone interview from New York.
“But the New Orleans metropolitan area has an extraordinary community of classical musicians. I am a huge fan of Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
The program at Loyola is the only one among the Jesuit universities for training [classical] musicians. New Orleans has a real infrastructure of talent. I have gone to high schools and middle schools and found teachers in their 30s who knew my music and were thrilled to have me work with their students.”
Born in Rome in 1961, Salerno-Sonnenberg never knew her father, but absorbed the discipline of practicing her instrument from her mother, “a spectacular pianist. I grew up in a home where music was always played.” She was 8 when they moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She began winning prizes before her college graduation from Juilliard.
In her work in San Francisco with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, she was executive producer of the 2014 release, From A to Z: 21st New Century Concertos. The album features the works of four composers. Her sinuous lines in the first cut, “Dreamscapes” by Clarice Assad, exemplify the qualities of a “fiercely original, deeply emotive violinist” as pronounced by a Washington Post critic several years ago.
In the liner notes Assad writes, “The solo violin represents self-awareness, while the orchestra represents the subconscious mind, providing the scenario changes throughout the piece.” A swirling stream of the violin notes in one passage suggest the mind surfacing from the fugue state of a dream, yet aching for resolution or finality from what the psyche whispers. Dreams are too often unresolved, and so the violin moans.
In such a busy life, what does Salerno-Sonnenberg listen to in her off-hours?
“WWOZ. I listen to it all the time in New York. I love that station and I’m a contributor. I have a WWOZ bumper sticker on my car. I’m absorbing everything I can about New Orleans. And the food! But let’s not go there.”
“I get deeper into the notes the older I get,” she says of her music. “I have also watched my world change in startling ways. I never imagined that the Philadelphia orchestra word declare bankruptcy. For all of us, the work involves so much fundraising and a struggle to get people into the seats. I grew up in the golden age of recording, and that’s gone” she says, referring to the trend in music recording generally, with fewer major labels producing and distributing works as artists take on the task.
Salerno-Sonnenberg’s presence at Loyola is one that many universities would envy. Her Oct. 2 concert will include a number with the guitarist John Rankin, a faculty member guitarist and jazz artist, playing Brazilian “choro” music.
The reach of her style seems matched only by her curiosity for the range of music and culture in New Orleans. Meanwhile, as the summer days counted down toward fall, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg had music from WWOZ the roots radio station playing in the background at her home, up north, in the city of cities.