In the largely homogeneous world of classical performance, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg stands out. Echoing the ethos of a jazz improviser, she once said, “If each person doesn't show some freedom of expression, what's the point of so many people playing the same piece?” At 40, Salerno-Sonnenberg's fiery interpretations of the conventional repertory of composers like Vivaldi and Shostakovich — interpretations derived from her Italian-Russian bloodline — have earned her widespread acclaim, including the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 1999. Music critics, however, have not always embraced her renegade style.
Something of a prodigy, Salerno-Sonnenberg began working with respected Juilliard teacher Dorothy DeLay at 14; by 20 she'd taken first prize in the Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition. The honor thrust her into the spotlight and led to high-profile TV appearances on The Tonight Show and 60 Minutes, as well as a recording deal with EMI Classics and a rigorous touring schedule. As her popularity grew, she was criticized for everything from her informal, overtly sexual fashion sense and her outspoken interviews to her habit of running roughshod over a composer's score. Her wild ride came to an abrupt caesura in 1995 when her increasing disillusionment led to a suicide attempt. (As fate would have it, the gun jammed.)
Salerno-Sonnenberg's courageous recommitment in the past few years has yielded what is arguably the most emotion-rich, adventurous work of her career. She recently recorded a pair of extraordinary albums for the Nonesuch label: Humoresque, a virtuosic rendering of music from the 1947 film of the same name which includes a fleet-fingered version of “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” and a masterpiece of hotblooded beauty with Brazilian Gypsy guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad, titled with their three names. Both works attest to her enduring vitality as a one-of-a-kind classical performer.