Interview with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: 'On Our Way'

May 8, 2012, 10:00 AM · "I believe so much in the moment … anything can happen, anything should happen!" Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg said about the magic of live music.

It's just one of the many Nadja-isms (*great Nadja quotes) on the new DVD, On Our Way, which celebrates her four-year partnership with the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra, where she has served as director since 2008. (The name is perhaps a take on Nadja's 1989 autobiography, On My Way).

The group performs with no conductor: Nadja leads from the concertmaster chair, or as soloist. Otherwise the group looks to each other, relying on a heightened musical sensitivity and spirit of teamwork. One can sense the group's high energy, with Nadja as lightning rod, in the full performances shown on the DVD: Hugo Wolf's "Italian Serenade"; Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires"; Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" and more. It also includes interviews with Nadja and other members of the orchestra.

Nadja spoke to me by phone last week from Portland, where she had just performed the Piazzolla with the Oregon Symphony. She was on her way to San Francisco, to rehearse with New Century for four performances this weekend of a world-premiere piece by Ellen Zwilich. We spoke about Nadja's efforts to expand the string orchestra repertoire, about how 19 people work as a team, and about the joy of live performance:

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Photo by Christian Steiner

Laurie: I've been enjoying 'On Our Way,' and I see that New Century has concerts (this weekend).

Nadja: This is the final set of New Century's 20th anniversary season, and that's why I wanted to release the DVD, as something special for this year.

Laurie: There were a few things you said on the DVD, that I just loved. Here's one: "We play repertoire we have no business playing." What did you mean by that?

Nadja: Basically, the string orchestra repertoire is very small. In the standard string orchestra repertoire, there are maybe 12 or 15 really good pieces. Not much. After that, you have to dive into the quartet repertoire or the chamber music repertoire. What I meant by that statement is that we've made arrangements of pieces that a string orchestra really shouldn't be playing.

For example, (Hugo) Wolf's 'Italian Serenade,' on that DVD, that is not a piece for 19 people. (The Wolf) was written for a quartet, and it's hard enough for a quartet. With such a difficult piece, it's more than challenging to get 19 people to play and make it sound like a quartet. We also went on tour this year with Mendelssohn Octet (written for eight people). These kinds of pieces are written, in a way, as solo pieces. To have an orchestra play a solo piece is challenging.

Also, some of the arrangements I have commissioned were for pieces meant for a large orchestra. For example, on our second season we played 'Pictures at an Exhibition.' When you hear the title 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' you immediately think: enormous orchestra! Yet, this particular arrangement by Clarice Assad was just so brilliant. It was for string orchestra, percussion and piano; and you actually heard instruments that you didn't see on stage. It was just one of those strokes of genius.

So we play repertoire that is not written for 19 people. I don't want the orchestra to be relegated to certain repertoire or go into a niche. We can play anything and everything, and so that's I want us to do.

Laurie: I understand that you and the New Century will perform a world premiere piece this weekend in San Francisco. Tell me all about it.

Nadja: That is part of our featured composer program for this season, which is something I started when I came on, four years ago. Because our season is short, with four or five concert sets in a season, I thought that instead of having a composer-in-residence, having a featured composer would be more apt. We would play at least one existing work by that composer to introduce that composer to the audience; then of course, we would commission that composer to write something specifically for us. We've always premiered that piece at the end of the season; it's exciting to end the season with a world premiere, and also, it gives the composer some more time to write and prepare it.

We give them the option of writing anything they want, even if they want other instruments -- winds and anything like that. They mostly have elected to write violin concertos for me. I begged last year's composer, Mark O'Connor, not to write me a violin concerto. So he wrote something specifically for the orchestra.

These pieces are just fantastic, and this one in particular. It's more than just a violin concerto, it's a performance piece.

Laurie: Fun!

Nadja: (Ellen Zwilich) always wanted to write for me, and I'm a certain kind of player. So she really went to town with that! She wrote a piece, 'Commedia dell Arte' -- it's based on the Renaissance art form of Italian theater. It all these theatrical characters: like Harlequin, or "Arlecchino"; and Colombina and Il Capitano. It's a theatre piece, and so these characters each have instruments associated with them. Columbina, she's always with a tambourine; the Capitan always has his drum; and Harlequin has this flapstick thing. So I have to pick players to play these instruments. I'm very appreciative to Ellen for writing not only a violin concerto, but writing something specifically for me and for the orchestra; it's fantastic piece for us. She's heard us play, and she knew what we can do. So she really went to town with this one. It's going to be an amazing premiere. We'll have a challenge on our hands, but we're good with that.

Laurie: Did the orchestra used to do this featured composer kind of thing before you came? Why do you feel it's important?

Nadja: No, I brought that on, for two reasons. One, I wanted to mix up the featured composer element: to feature the young, up-and-coming composers as well as extremely established composers. For example, Clarice Assad was our first featured composer. She's this young phenom. We've also had two Pulitzer prize-winning composers. I also wanted different styles: for example, Mark O'Connor is not strictly a classical composer. We've also had Bill Bolcom, and it's just terrific to have the palette of that.

Also, like we discussed before, the string orchestra repertoire is small. By commissioning these compositions, we add to that repertoire, which is helpful to all string orchestras. Believe me, if you are a member of a string orchestra, you're always looking for new rep. Now we create a new piece every year for that (kind of) ensemble.

Laurie: You talk a lot in 'On Our Way' about the members of the New Century Chamber Orchestra making decisions together and the trust that you've built. It seems like sometimes that can be a precarious kind of tightrope walk. How do you continue to build on that openness and trust, yet avoid it going in the direction of ...

Nadja: …anarchy! (she laughs) Well, there's a time and a place for everything. There'll be moments in rehearsals where everybody, and I mean everybody, is talking. That's when I have to take on the role as boss for a moment and say, 'Okay, everybody shut up. We're going to do it my way.' Or, 'We'll do this, let's try that, and mix in with this and this and that.'

It's very personal. I remember very clearly, when I first took this job, I didn't know what to expect. I asked every music director, nearly every conductor that I've ever worked with, to give me their best advice. It was a lot of people, and very varied kinds of people. The one piece of advice that was absolutely uniform -- that every one of them told me -- was: 'Don't get friendly with the orchestra, don't get friendly with your players. It's trouble.'

It's the one piece of advice I ignored.

In any situation, even as a soloist, it's important for me to get along with the people I'm working with and to have a positive experience. It's more than just, 'Let's put this piece together and perform it.' Also, there are only 19 of us, so it's intimate, in that sense. New Century has always been a democratic group in their decision-making process, and I did not want to interfere with that. So little by little, we all -- yes -- became friends, and we're all very much a family.

With that, comes a feeling of power, and of relaxing. There's an intimate feeling when we go into rehearsals. Everybody speaks, everyone has opinions. That's how we put the pieces together: there will be a problem, then somebody will make a suggestion that solves that problem. Then the solution causes another problem for somebody else, but then we fix that. It goes on like that. But at the end of the day, we put all the music together, the extraordinary variety of music. And when it's time for the concert, everybody brings everything up a notch. It's yet to fail. Every single time we has a concert, it's like we go into H-D. It's extremely gratifying, and the democracy works.

Laurie: How do you keep one person from dominating, and how do you keep people from getting offended?

Nadja: It's like anything, you get to know the person, you get to know how they speak. For example, they're used to me. I will just start cursing about something and speak very fast because that's me, that's who I am. I'm from New York and that's my way of speaking. Somebody else will be very quiet, and everybody has to kind of really shut up to hear what so-and-so has to say because that's how they speak. We know each other. In the process of rehearsals it can get quite tense and insulting, but we know that, and we fix that. There's always somebody there to bring it down -- mostly it's me; that's my job. We never go to sleep angry. We get very heated, but we all have the same goal in mind, so that makes it work.

Laurie: It sounds like it's probably useful to be frank.

Nadja: It is, but it depends on the mood that day. Let's say I'm rehearsing something, and a particular section sounds very bad. Depending on how the mood of that rehearsal's going, I could say, 'You guys, this is really ca-ca. No good.' But if there's a little tension going on to begin with, then that's not how I would speak to them. It's all very dependent on what's happening in the rehearsal at that moment. But no matter what route anybody takes, we always come through beautifully at the end. There is the respect there, always.

Laurie: When you are leading from the concertmaster chair, or even as the soloist, what are some of the most effective ways that you can communicate, and what are some of the things you've found that don't work?

Nadja: In these four years, I've found that I'm kind of a natural leader. It's funny, just a few weeks ago I (led from the concertmaster chair) with an orchestra other than mine, for the first time. I had been offered to do this for a few years, and I never did it because I felt like I was cheating on my orchestra. But finally I did it; I was curious to see, is this even possible, with another group? It was a phenomenal experience, very powerful. This was an orchestra that's not used to not having a conductor.

Laurie: They must have had to make some adjustments, if they were used to having a conductor.

Nadja: They were fantastic musicians. But if you're used to sitting back and looking at the guy up there beating time for you, it's huge, when all of a sudden you have to go into a completely different mode of total concentration and responsibility for your part. It almost erases 20 years of sitting in the back of the section. It's demanded that you play better and that you bring your full game to the table. That was very satisfying, to see that happen, and also just to tell them, 'I cannot cue every single entrance, do you understand? I cannot. I'm playing the first violin part. You're going to count!' (she laughs).

Laurie: I loved this quote, that 'Anything can happen in the moment, and anything should happen in the moment.'

Nadja: That's how I've always felt about music, an overall credo. Live music is not a recording. Every single time a musician begins to play music, it can be magical. It doesn't have to be: 'We rehearsed it this way, this is how we're going to play it.' You have that foundation of, 'This is what we decided, and this is how it works,' But once you have that foundation and you feel a solidity with that, then comes the inspiration of a live performance. That's where I come in as a good leader: I believe in it, and I'm capable of doing it.

Many musicians cannot do it or choose not to, and it doesn't make any sense to me. It's an art form, and it's ever-changing. There's no reason to play a passage the same way every time you play it. The passage itself, the piece itself, has so much possibility and so much life. I love exploring that. In a concert situation, I may feel that I want to go further than what we rehearsed. My orchestra is so attuned to me -- they just know, oh boy, here she goes. They can see it in my eyes: let's go. That's what I meant (in the DVD) when I said that they'll just follow me off a cliff. It's terrific fun that way!


May 9, 2012 at 02:01 AM · I heard her performance of the Piazolla with the Oregon Sym. in Salem. It was astounding. The audience, (pretty conservative, really) gave her a well-deserved standing ovation.

She has matured so much as an artist. I played in an orch. accompanying her in Tucson decades ago; she has got it all so much more together now than she did then.

Good interview, Laurie.

May 9, 2012 at 05:00 AM · I've always admired this violinist, Solerno-Sonnenberg. In her younger years she seemed to have trouble organizing her tremendous natural vitality, but she seems so much more centered now, I think there's no stopping her.

May 9, 2012 at 07:39 AM · If the repertoire for string orchestra is so small then I hope the NCCO will take a look at my Serenade for Strings! I've played excellent works originally written for string orchestra by Christopher Culpo, Dimitri Tchesnokov, Noël Lee amongst others.

A couple of movements are now on youtube with score following the audio:

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