Preface: This article was scheduled to appear in the Saturday (January 7th) edition of The Columbian newspaper, but the concert in Vancouver (scheduled for Sunday evening) has been cancelled due to weather worries. The Vancouver School District, which oversees the venue (Skyview High School Auditorium), has decided to cancel all events in school buildings over the weekend because of anticipated snow and freezing rain. Consequently, the article will not run in the paper. However, the same program will take place tomorrow night at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. So much of the text - especially the interview portions- are especially pertinent.
For the first time in its 120-year history, the Oregon Symphony will venture across the Columbia River to perform this Sunday evening in Vancouver. The historic concert will be extra special because it will feature Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, one of the most dynamic and exciting violinists on the planet. She will lead the Grammy-nominated orchestra in performances of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” and Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Suite,” which is based on Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”
A lot of classical music lovers have seen Salerno-Sonnenberg with the Oregon Symphony over the years. She has also recorded widely with over twenty releases on the EMI and Nonesuch labels plus eleven on her record label, NSS Music. Her professional career was launched after she won the Walter W. Naumberg International Violin Competition in 1981. Since then she has received an Avery Fisher Career Grant and the Avery Fisher Prize, soloed with major orchestras around the world, and appeared TV shows, such as CBS’ 60 Minutes and The Tonight Show.
The really cool thing about the Oregon Symphony concert is that Salerno-Sonnenberg will lead the music-making from the concertmaster’s chair. She will not be waving a baton from the podium, and the orchestra’s Music Director, Carlos Kalmar won’t be doing it either. You might think that it’s really weird to lead an orchestra in this way, but it is all part of Salerno-Sonnenberg’s new path.
“I have been a soloist with the Oregon Symphony for many years and it has been a beautiful, wonderful relationship,” said Salerno-Sonnenberg. “But that’s what I did for decades, and I don’t wish to do that anymore. Now, this is a transition into a new world for me. I will be a soloist and lead the Vivaldi from the concertmaster’s chair, but there will be no conductor. For the Shchedrin in the second half, I will sit in the concertmaster chair and lead. This is what I’ve been doing for ten years with my orchestra, the New Century Chamber Orchestra and as a guest with other ensembles.”
By leading from within the orchestra, Salerno-Sonnenberg is upping the ante on her colleagues with the intent of delivering an intensely engaging concert.
“I’m not beating time,” explained Salerno-Sonnenberg. “This forces the musicians to play differently, to focus differently, and to be more involved, more committed to the performance. They have to be. This creates extraordinary vibrancy in a performance. And that is what I love doing now.”
Even though she has probably played “The Four Seasons” hundreds of times and recorded it on the EMI label, Salerno-Sonnenberg always becomes inspired by the music to make a new and fresh. She likes to draw inspiration from the descriptive sonnets that Vivaldi wrote to accompany the music.
“’The Four Seasons’ is a fascinating piece,” she remarked. “Vivaldi wrote the text, and the notes were written to justify the text. For birds, he writes trills for the violins that emulates the text. I have to take things to another level. I try to play more than what is written on the page. There’s the hunt so you have gunshots. Autumn is all about being drunk. There are insects, dogs barking, wind, and storms. I try to bring that out even more than what Vivaldi wrote.”
Shchedrin’s arrangement of “Carmen” takes things a little further, because it involves percussion and strings. He wrote the piece as ballet music for his wife Maya Plisetskaya, who was one of the great prima ballerinas at the Bolshoi.
“Shchedrin’s arrangement is mind-blowingly incredible,” exclaimed Salnero-Sonnenberg. It is almost better than the opera. The strings and percussion are the two polar regions of the orchestra. Almost like the yin and the yang. You will find this music powerful and exciting.”
One orchestra member who has played with Salerno-Sonnenberg in all of her appearances with the Oregon Symphony is its Associate Concertmaster Peter Frajola.
“Salnero-Sonnenberg is a bit of a paradox,” noted Frajola, “because she comes off as being intense, but she is relaxed and can do anything that she wants. She tosses off the most difficult parts of concertos with ease. You can’t do that without being relaxed. And she is very generous with what she does. It will be good for us to go back to chamber ensemble playing – listening, watching, and feeling the music together.“
Originally, she was scheduled for just one performance in Portland, but the opportunity to play in Vancouver came about when Scott Showalter, President and CEO of the Oregon Symphony, found out that her travel schedule would accommodate an additional concert.
“We reached out to Executive Director Igor Shakhman and the Vancouver Symphony,” said Showalter. “They have been fantastic, and we are really excited to bring this concert to Vancouver.”