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The violinist from left field.


It was 8:00 p.m. at Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach, Florida. The packed house buzzed with anticipation. Onstage, the internationally famous London Symphony Orchestra had gathered for the first of a week-long series of performances. Each musician looked stunning, dressed in formal attire.

Slowly, the house lights dimmed. Warm applause greeted the guest conductor, Yuri Ahronovitch. He bowed. The audience grew quiet. Then gasped. The guest soloist had just entered from stage right, carrying her violin and wearing . . . a . . . purple jump suit?

But the stunned audience forgot the stark contrast when Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg played the first note of the Bruch violin concerto in G minor.

The Daytona Beach audience was far from the first to be rocked back in their seats by the energetic artist's unusual approach to music. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is not afraid to break the rules. She has sacrificed plenty of sacred cows during her decade as a professional musician. Those who know her best testify that she's an individualist first, a violinist second--the approach to her art that transforms a concert into an "experience.'

That's exactly what happened at the gala opening of the $72 million Gus S. Wortham Theater Center in Houston in May 1987, when patrons paid $200 to $500 to see a two-hour dedication show staged by the Emmy-winning producer George Stevens, Jr. The master of ceremonies, Tony Randall, introduced an ensemble of world-acclaimed celebrities, including Art Buchwald, Diahann Carroll, and the Broadway sensation Tommy Tune.

According to one critic, Robert Reinhold, however, it was Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg who stole the show. But that was one of the few predictable dimensions of the 26-year-old, hailed by music critics as "the hottest musician today.' Recently, as an example of her popularity, long ticket lines formed around the block in Seattle within hours after Nadja agreed to play with the city's symphony orchestra.

The New York Times described the violinist as "a tomboy with a fiddle instead of a baseball bat,' although many times she willingly trades the rosin and bow for a bat and glove. She's living testimony that the term "fan' is short for "fanatic.' Second to her love of music is her rabid devotion to the New York Yankees--especially their left-fielder, Dave Winfield. Inside her violin case is her most treasured possession--not the Stradivarius, but an autographed photo of Winfield.

She's not content to cheer from the stands--she's been an active participant in the sport. Much to the dismay of fellow musicians who feared she would harm her artistic fingers, she used to play ball with friends on Sunday afternoons in Central Park. "I'm a good outfielder,' she admits. "I'm not as good as Dave Winfield, but I'm good.'

In the language of the musician, her entire life is allegro con moto; her enthusiasm for whatever she does crescendos to fortissimo when she perfects a new dimension in life. Her most notable area of perfection, of course, is her mastery of the violin.

"Violin was an instrument chosen for me when I was five years old,' she says. "My mother went out and bought a violin, a case, a bow, and some rosin--the whole kit--for about $40. The violin was put under my chin, and that was that. If I had a choice, I wouldn't have picked the violin. But by the time I began to think about what I wanted to do with my life, I was already too good to quit. I don't care. As long as I make music, I don't really care what the tool is.'

Nadja's hyphenated name comes from her mother and her stepfather. Her natural father abandoned the family shortly after her birth in Italy. Later, her stepfather too left her mother.

Nadja was to be a poor one-parent immigrant who marched to the beat of a different drummer even as a child. As a prodigy of 12, she once wrote in a school essay that she wanted to be an astronaut, a professional athlete, and a concert artist. "I want a life no one has ever led before,' she concluded. A bold statement, perhaps, but quite believable to those who heard Salerno-Sonnenberg play.

It was as if God had breathed into her a divine gift. Instead of the usual "squeek-squawk' offered up by young students to the cringes of patient relatives who endure impromptu parlor concerts, her tones had a melting softness.

By the time she was seven, Nadja showed such promise that her teachers encouraged her mother to take the child to America. There, Nadja could study under the world's best violin instructors. Her family moved from Rome to New Jersey, where the next year Nadja became the youngest student to enroll in Philadelphia's famed Curtis Institute of Music.

Her talents developing rapidly, Nadja was invited to study with Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School in New York City when she was only 14. She eagerly accepted and threw herself into her art, practicing for eight to ten hours a day. Her devotion paid off. Six years later, she became the youngest musician ever to win the Naumburg International Violin Competition at Carnegie Hall.

Others quickly noticed the budding violinist not only for her rich talent but for her unconventional mannerisms as well. For example, she walked onstage with long "devil-may-care' strides. When she played the violin, her face became contorted; her long auburn hair flew about during dramatic passages. She even stomped her foot to the tempo, as if she were playing bluegrass instead of Beethoven.

Several well-known orchestras began featuring her as soloist. But even onstage, she looked as if she would rather be wearing jeans and cowboy boots. Concert-goers whispered behind her back in hushed tones and chuckled about her selection of clothes for a performance--second-hand formal dresses purchased at garage sales for five dollars apiece.

She has since then bowed to the pressure of the critics. She occasionally wears gowns from Saks, and she has trimmed her hair. She does, however, still twist her face with the look of a lemon-eater and occasionally repeat her habit of stomping one foot.

Nadja's fame spread quickly. In North America she has soloed with such prestigious orchestras as the Detroit Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the London Symphony. She has also drawn standing ovations in Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Lisbon.

Her popularity has reached beyond the concert stage. Her unorthodox approach to music and life was featured on "60 Minutes'; Morley Safer described her as "Pete Rose with a fiddle.' She's also appeared numerous times on "The Tonight Show' with Johnny Carson. Once she played "Bugler's Holiday' on the trumpet--her so-called "therapy instrument' --with "Tonight's' band leader, Doc Severinsen.

"I was scared the first time I was on "The Tonight Show,'' she confesses. "You grow up brushing your teeth to that theme music--DEE dee dee dah dah,' she sings, "and all of a sudden it's in the same room with you. And you're sitting next to this legend. And millions of people are watching.'

During one of her interviews with Carson, she listed people she admires. "I learned a lot from Barbra Streisand,' she said. "Her technique is out of sight.' She said she also enjoys the unique styles of Wynton Marsalis, Oscar Peterson, Benny Goodman, and Stevie Wonder.

Of all the musicians she's met and heard, perhaps she most envies her fellow violinist Itzhak Perlman, for three reasons: he demonstrates superb artistry, he lives in Babe Ruth's old apartment, and he's done a live TV play-by-play of an inning of a Yankees game.

Her own life is peppered with a kaleidoscope of interests. She's into football, swimming, cooking elaborate meals, fishing in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay or trout-fishing in Aspen, dabbling in ceramics, talking with friends until four in the morning, and playing practical jokes. While a student at the conservatory, for instance, she was officially reprimanded several times for dropping water-filled plastic bags on passers-by from the fourth-story roof.

"She loves music and life and is out to make the most of both,' says her close friend Mary Lou Falcone, "and that translates into her playing. The electricity is sensed by the sophisticated and newcomer alike.'

Johnny Carson confesses he's captivated by the freshness of Nadja's "free spirit.' It's that sort of free spirit that compels someone to shag fly balls in the outfield, to wade a Colorado stream for trout, or to solo with the London Symphony in a purple jump suit.

Fifty years from now, grandparents will tell starry-eyed youngsters about the time they saw Salerno-Sonnenberg perform, just as their parents used to talk about hearing Caruso. Until then, America and the world can look forward to years of masterful artistry, punctuated by stomps of a foot in 4/4 time.

Photo: Playing the violin was her mother's idea: it's not the instrument Nadja would have picked, but by the time she began thinking about a career, she was already too good to quit.

Photo: Onstage she often twists her face with the look of a lemon-eater and occasionally stomps time with one foot as if she were playing bluegrass instead of Bruch or Beethoven.
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Title Annotation:musician-baseball fan Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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