Najda Salerno-Sonnenberg is one of the world’s most celebrated violinists. Her solo performances are electrifying: she combines supreme artistry and musicality with both precision and fearlessness. She dives deeply into the music and takes her audiences along with her on that journey.
Milwaukee has been lucky to have had Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg perform here a number of times in the past. And she returns to Uihlein Hall March 8th and March 9th to perform Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Edo de Waart.
Salerno-Sonnenberg says the performance of the Bruch violin concerto is meaningful to her because she and Maestro de Waart performed this in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and in Minneapolis. Together they recorded this piece and the Brahms Violin Concerto No. 1 in g minor.
But tonight's performance marks the first time Salerno-Sonnenberg will be playing under de Waart's baton with the MSO, with whose sound she is impressed.
“A sort of attitude change...I have seen with the musicians, a kind of confirmation that they now have a music director that is worthy," Salerno-Sonnenberg says. "You sort of feel the pride in the players and they are sounding just grand."
Musicians often struggle to keep a piece fresh, especially if it is part of the standard repertoire for a particular instrument or an orchestra. In this case, Salerno-Sonnenberg says she is playing with an enlightened orchestra and under the baton of a familiar collaborator, a mixture of new and old experiences that will bring a new sound to the piece.
“A musician plays differently if there is no guide there, so one has to take on so much more responsibility than any member in the Milwaukee Symphony or any symphony orchestra,” Salerno-Sonnenberg says.
Salerno-Sonnenberg, who also founded a label, has embraced keeping music fresh by taking the leader role in New Century, a 19-piece chamber string ensemble that refreshes old pieces that are either well-known or long forgotten. The group was established in 1992 and It also commissions pieces and plays music by contemporary composers.
Chamber ensembles typically have one to three players on a part and are not led by a conductor with a baton. But Salerno-Sonnenberg, who took leadership in the 2007-2008 concert season, directs the ensemble's performance through her own playing.
“Thinking about taking this job on, I asked every music director I know - which is a lot - and it got a lot of different, really sage advice," she says. "But the one comment that every one of them made unanimously was ‘Don’t get too friendly with the orchestra,’ and it was exactly what I didn’t do."
Nonetheless, being a leader and a performer in the small ensemble, it would be hard not to be close to the others in the group. She likes creating an environment where the members feel comfortable enough to share ideas and concerns. With the smaller number and no maestro, New Century's members can be more expressive and inspire each other. But overall she says her focus is to make sure that the performers do not go onstage unless they are comfortable with the piece itself.
When comparing being a soloist with leading a chamber ensemble, Salerno-Sonnenberg says the soloist can play, for example, dotted-eighth-sixteenth notes however they choose and they are meant to stick out. However, as the leader, she needs to be stricter with the rhythm and to blend in with the group while making the piece sound alive.
“My challenge with them musically is to lead, but blend. So they’re all attached to me every second of the entire performance. And I must inspire, push, pull, and do whatever I feel is necessary.”