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There is a school of artistic thought which holds that beauty must shine through at all times – beauty of tone, clean articulation, and strict adherence to dynamic norms, all tastefully presented, with neither exaggeration nor excess. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, although perfectly capable of doing so, does not adhere to this academic approach to music. Rather, she seeks to exhibit the meaning and feeling behind and within the musical stenography of the score, in a very "up-front" fashion. So, if the score suggests a less-than-ladylike emotion, Solerno-Sonnenberg plays it in a less-than-ladylike manner.
Such is the ethos which informed the superb performance of the first four concerti of Antonio Vivaldi's Opus 8, Il cemento dell'armonia e dell'invenzione (The Confrontation of Harmony and Inventiveness) in the Eastern Music Festival's Thursday night concert.. Collectively, these four concerti are known as Le Quatro Stagioni or the Four Seasons, and are usually presented in order, starting with Spring, Op. 8, No. 1. Written in 1721 for his wards at l'Ospedale del Pietà, the girls' orphanage where Vivaldi was an ordained priest and taught music and directed the orchestra, the Four Seasons have become Vivaldi's most popular work and have been frequently recorded by almost all the great violinists, with a wealth of interpretations, from the literal academic to the whimsical.
Salerno-Sonnenberg's performance took much of its spirit from the close adherence to the set of sonnets Vivaldi penned into the score, making the Four Seasons a very early example of "program music," which flourished a century later and led to the creation of the "tone poem." So, the Spring concerto evokes chirping birds, murmuring streams caressed by breezes, a sleeping goat-herd with his faithful dog and finally, a foot-stomping (unfortunately literal) shepherd's dance. The sleepy second movement was the softest playing this reviewer has ever heard in Dana Auditorium.
The second concerto, Summer, was all about stifling heat and the listless anticipation of a thunderstorm. The vibrato-less strings, played colorlessly by weightless bow-tips over the fingerboards, conveyed the languor of summer. Switching to the nasal metallic ponticello, the ever quiet strings buzzed while Salerno-Sonnenberg played a gorgeous solo above them. Finally, the storm broke in the third movement with musical hailstones leveling the fields of grain.
The third concerto, Autumn, was notable for the close interaction between the soloist and Rebecca Zimmerman, principal cello. Tempi were constantly ebbing and flowing as the musicians drank figuratively but freely from the cup of Bacchus as they brought in the plentiful harvest. The second movement again brought an innovation as Salerno-Sonnenberg sought to characterize the snoozing drunks by sliding (glissando) from note to adjacent note in the upper strings.
Winter, the fourth concerto, was characterized by musical expressions of shivering (mordents, shakes and trills) again used with "ponticello" sounds to express the shivering and teeth chattering of the cold while the soloist played swirling wind-like figures above the ensemble. The middle movement (Largo) is one of the most beautiful movements of the entire work and allowed the audience to appreciate the gorgeous rich tone Solerno-Sonnenberg produced on her violin. The icy path provoked the tentative and cautious music Vivaldi penned for the closing movement, interrupted by slips and falls described musically by unison descending sixteenth notes played with great energy by the excellent ensemble.
Salerno-Sonnenberg was a force of nature; leading the string orchestra of combined faculty and String Fellows from the center of the stage, she played with verve and an almost-nervous energy. She bobbed, weaved and stomped, always adding to the expression of the moment, always attuned to the score. The ensemble playing was full of spontaneity, yet impeccably together.
After intermission, the large audience was treated to a work unknown to most. The string ensemble of two dozen musicians was joined by five percussion players surrounded by a plethora of instruments, large and small. Salerno-Sonnenberg assumed the role and place of concertmaster to lead the Carmen Suite (after Bizet), a ballet which Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin composed for his wife, Maya Plissetskaya, the Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Bolshoi Ballet at the time. Rather than compose entirely new music to orchestrate the novella by Prospère Mérimée, he chose to rework and re-orchestrate the music of George Bizet's immensely popular opera, Carmen. Upon first hearing, in the late 1960s, this writer was disturbed by these changes, especially the use of marimba and xylophone, which lent a distinct Pops-ish hue to the familiar music. I have since come to acknowledge the humor and skill of Shchedrin's reworking of the music into a successful ballet score.
The performance of the conductor-less ensemble (granted, Salerno-Sonnenberg did lead on occasion, but seated and with her bow in place of a baton) was extraordinarily tight, with everyone buying into the concept of playing together using their own ears rather than following the motions of a conductor. There were many departures from expectations, including a hilarious "Changing of the Guard” replete with oriental gongs and wood blocks and the occasional absence of the familiar tune to the Toréador song, which memory and somebody humming from the audience provided. But when the tragedy ended, I was left with a lump in my throat as the music evoked the scene of the dying Carmen flanked by the two lovers. The audience again gave the performers a lengthy standing ovation.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg Leads Masterclass on June 30
Sternberger Auditorium was full as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg listened to and coached three young violin students from the Eastern Music Festival on the campus of Guilford College. The interior of the black-box-style auditorium is surrounded by black curtains, no doubt to facilitate verbal comprehension in a theatric setting, but a distinct disadvantage to music, which needs reverberation to allow the sound to mix and bloom. The three students each played for about 10 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of coaching. The first to play was Nathan Lowman, 20, from Wilmington, Delaware, who played the opening of the 5th Concerto, Op. 35 by Belgian composer, Henri Vieuxtemps. Salerno-Sonnenberg worked with him to produce a larger sound, urging him to play closer to the bridge. Commenting (sarcastically) that this was her favorite concerto, "especially these three measures," singling out a particularly repetitive and boring passage, she implied that to make the piece work one must carefully work out the crescendos and maintain the very soft passages.
Jane Parris, 18, from Durham, NC, followed. She played the Fugue from the First Sonata in G minor for unaccompanied violin by J. S. Bach. After praising her playing and informing the audience that this was one of the most difficult works for violin, surpassing Paganini in difficulty, she began to work on the inevitable tendency of the chords to "crunch" by slowing her playing and working on bow speed - fast over the chord and much slower on the sustained notes, all the while, vibrating the long notes whenever possible. It was remarkable to hear so much progress in the space of a quarter of an hour.*
The third violinist was 15-year-old Christy Chen from Princeton Junction, NJ who played the fiery Carmen Fantasy, composed in 1883 by the Spanish virtuoso and composer, Pablo de Sarasate. Cute and bouncy, Miss Chen was visibly exhausted at the end of the 12-minute piece. In a brief discussion of the piece, Salerno-Sonnenberg pointed out that the Sarasate version had some built-in structural defects, including the "Gypsy Dance" which ends the Fantasy. Rather than start slowly and build to a fast climax as in the opera, Sarasate starts it fast and ends it even faster, killing the poor violinist's shoulder in the process. Salerno-Sonnenberg recommended the Carmen Fantasy of Franz Waxman (1946) over the Sarasate. When asked if she had seen or listened to the original opera, Chen replied that she had not. When it was suggested that the Habanera should be more seductive, she giggled nervously, to which Salerno-Sonnenberg swung her hips slightly and struck a pose which provoked the excellent accompanist, Marika Bournaki, to start the Habanera in a most suggestive manner, much to the mirth of the audience.
In answer to questions from members of the audience, Salerno-Sonnenberg affirmed that she plans to play fewer concertos (except maybe the Shostakovich Violin Concerto) and more chamber music. She also loves to teach as well as to lead ensembles in conductor-less performances such as the Carmen Suite of the preceding evening.
* (Modern improvements to the violin have exacerbated the "crunch" problem: strings are tuned much more tightly both because they are longer, being strung over lengthened necks, and because the A (=440 Hz) is higher than in Bach's time; additionally, being made of metal rather than the more forgiving gut, modern strings are louder and more immediately responsive. It is theorized that Baroque era bows, with a pronounced convex curvature, could more easily play sustained chords that today's straightened bows which must arpeggiate four-part chords.)