September 5, 2008

Violinist Hitches Her Star to New Century’s Wagon

By Sue Gilmore

The last time I saw violin soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg -- and the only time I've ever met her face to face -- she was flush with success and happily hobnobbing late at night in a Sacramento restaurant with string players from the orchestra that had just supported her turn with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. I remember marveling at what a collegial and downright democratic personality this world-renowned musician seemed to be.

So it's nice, a couple of decades later, to have that impression reinforced as Salerno-Sonnenberg steps into her new role as music director, for the next three years, of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, which opens its season Thursday with a concert in Berkeley's First Congregational Church.

Fierce collaboration will be the name of the game for this high- profile, high-octane personality: NCCO plays without a conductor, making all decisions as a group with every individual ringing in. As concertmaster, Salerno-Sonnenberg, 47, will be first among 17 equals, and things like whip-cracking and baton-waving won't even be in her vocabulary. Shaping new programs and finding new musical outlets will be her leadership role.

She won her position after a guest stint with the orchestra last fall, an audition that had New York-based Salerno-Sonnenberg's mind reeling with the possibilities. "The impression made was so strong that I felt almost as if I had an infection," she recalls. "Like, I couldn't shake the gig; they were constantly on my mind "... the idea of making music with them and the idea of helping them wouldn't go away."

Alhough preoccupied enough with her solo career, her busy recital schedule and NSS Music, a record label she founded in 2005, she decided to add about eight intensive weeks a year with NCCO to her plate. "It's an added element to my career," she notes, "and I have a challenge ahead of me. It's nice that they (NCCO) are known in the area, but they should be more known, more in demand and more respected. I have a job. I want to put them on the map."

She is aware it will take more than lending her celebrity name to the group efforts. "I have a three-year plan for which we need to do certain things incrementally in order to meet those goals," she says.

Steps one and two of the plan roll out with the first concert, which showcases a commissioned piece from 30-year-old Brazilian composer, singer and songwriter Clarice Assad, daughter of well- known guitarist and composer Sergei Assad. The younger Assad will serve as NCCO's featured composer throughout the concert year, and the strategy is twofold. "I thought by combining a composer every year with a commission, whether they're up-and-comers or established composers, New Century gets a new piece every year, plus it adds to the chamber orchestra repertoire, which is a good thing," Salerno- Sonnenberg says.

Assad's "Impressions" Suite for Chamber Orchestra receives its world premiere, and the composer also has done an arrangement of Villa-Lobos' famed "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" for the same program. Salerno-Sonnenberg, who has frequently collaborated with Assad's father, had asked the young woman to write a violin concerto for her as her graduate school thesis, and liked it so much she immediately recorded it on the NSS label.

"Everything I hear from her is 80 percent better than the last thing she wrote," the violinist says. "The level of growth has been unbelievable. I'm very excited to help promote a talent like this."

The balance of the first concert, which will be repeated at venues in San Francisco, San Rafael and Palo Alto, will be rounded out with two works from Argentinian composers featuring Salerno- Sonnenberg on her Guarnerius -- Alberto Ginastera's "Glosses on Themes by Pablo Casals" and Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires." The latter work, she notes, was originally written for Piazzolla's own quintet, but it is the later arrangement for chamber orchestra by Leonid Desyatnikov that she considers the true work of genius.

The ever-ebullient Salerno-Sonnenberg promises a "killer program," and she waxes ecstatic about the Piazzolla, which she describes as "a showpiece, not only for the solo violinist, but for every single player in the orchestra.

"It requires precision and a lot of personality," she says. "In fact, you need to bring a seat belt. It's a fantastic piece -- it's wild, it's carnal, it's sexual. It's one of the greatest arrangements I've ever heard in my life!"

The Piazzolla is destined to be the first piece laid down when Salerno-Sonnenberg and NCCO enter Skywalker Studios the week of their first concerts to begin recording their first CD together on her label. "The rest of the album is up for discussion," she says. "Everything is a group discussion with New Century!"

MOVING ON, MOVING BACK: Bay Area arts publicist Jon Finck, whose Encore Communications company has represented as diverse a clientele as the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Rrazz Room, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Chanticleer, the Sausalito Art Festival, the California Shakespeare Festival and both the San Francisco Opera and Symphony, has been appointed director of communications and public affairs at S.F. Opera, general director David Gockley announced last week. It represents a homecoming of sorts: Before to founding Encore in 1994, Finck had worked five years for the opera as director of press and public relations. He returns to the opera full time in October.

Tuned In appears every other Friday in Weekend Preview. Reach Sue Gilmore at sgilmore or 925-977-8482. concert preview-- WHAT: New Century Chamber Orchestra.-- WHERE and WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday, First Congregational Church, Berkeley; 8 p.m. Sept. 13, Herbst Theatre, S.F.; 5 p.m. Sept. 14, Osher Marin JCC, San Rafael; 6 p.m. Sept. 16, First United Church, Palo Alto.-- tickets: $16-$54; 415-392-4400, ONLINE: To hear an excerpt from Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" and to hear Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg describe the upcoming program, go to or InsideBayArea.


Originally published by Sue Gilmore , Contra Costa Times.

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