April 4, 2003
New York Post

“Fiery Fiddler Won’t Bow to Conformity”
by Barbara Hoffman

As violinists go, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is probably more high- strung than most – and with reason. In one hellish seven-month period eight years ago, she cut off the tip of a finger; fought depression, suffered family strife and romantic reversals, stopped smoking and gained 46 pounds. Which is partly why now she’s smoking (and thin) again – and not thrilled about the new cigarette ban. “I find it hard to believe that in this city, of all cities, this would be allowed,” the longtime Upper West Sider fumed to The Post. “Can’t we protest this?” 

The fiery, Italian-born violinist has built a career around her bold, impassioned playing, and in the pianist Anne-Marie McDermott – with whom she’s playing Town Hall on Sunday – she’s found a like- minded partner. At a private, pre-recital concert Wednesday night, they ripped through part of a Beethoven sonata and a Gershwin prelude. Even at 42, the onetime “bad girl of the violin” hasn’t lost her edge. “I guess I’m now the ‘bad woman of the violin,’ ” she laughs. When she first got that title 20 years ago, she recalls, “I wore pants on stage, I liked baseball” – she’s still an ardent Yankees fan – “and I’d bantered with Johnny Carson.  People didn’t think that’s how a classical musician should act. They think musicians are stodgy old men with beards – and I was just being me.” 

She showed more of her true self in the 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary “Speaking in Strings,” which followed that defining moment in 1994 when, while chopping onions for Christmas dinner, she lopped off the top of one pinky. Doctors reattached the finger, but healing was slow in coming – for the next few months, she played with three fingers.”  When I look back, I’m grateful it happened,” she says now. “The lessons I learned couldn’t have been taught. You have to live through it. “I realized I’d be lost without the fiddle, without the playing. And that in itself was a gift.”  

After the accident, she started saying yes to new things – like playing gypsy music with the Brazilian guitarists, the Assad Brothers; a rock ‘n’ roll opera with Joe Jackson and making a klezmer album with Mandy Patinkin. “Mandy is in-tense,” she says, “but a lot of fun. He apologizes for it all the time, but working with him, you have to be careful not to go over the edge.” Critics have accused her of doing just that – one once wrote that she was “battling the composer rather than interpreting the composer.” “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” she says. “But that’s how I play – I can’t possibly hold back. “If I’m still playing to sell-out crowds, that must say something.”

©2003 New York Post

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