Savvy Salerno-Sonnenberg Leads Orchestra, Owns Label: Interview

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg burst onto the music scene in the early 1980s, startling a staid music world with her purple jump suits, intense fiddling and gyrating performance style. Photographer: Christian Steiner/Grant Communications via Bloomberg

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg burst on to the classical music scene in the early 1980s, startling a staid audience with her purple jumpsuits, intense fiddling and gyrating performance style.

She went on to collect major prizes, appear on the Johnny Carson show and make a lot of recordings. These days, her focus is San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra, where she has been music director for three years. She’s touring with the group this month.

Lundborg: What violin are you playing?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: I have a Guarnerius, Peter of Venice, made in 1721. This instrument has the brilliance of a Strad and the deepness of a Guarnerius and it just fits my hand very well.

Lundborg: Musicians regularly leave their instruments in taxis. What about you?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: I got off of a plane once and forgot it in the overhead bin. It was only five seconds, but still. It was like falling dominos when I turned around and pushed my way back in.

Lundborg: How do you divide your time?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: What takes the most time now is the orchestra -- planning, talking, fundraising, cajoling, fixing, damage control and practicing. The orchestra has been around for 20 years with a small but loyal audience, but we’re expanding from four to five sets, plus two tours.

‘Amazingly Gratifying’

Lundborg: So, this is your baby?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: It’s like having a lot of children, a phenomenal responsibility but amazingly gratifying.

Every single music director I talked to before I took this on told me not to get friendly with the players. It’s the one piece of advice I’ve completely ignored.

Lundborg: How have things changed since you began your career in 1981?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: When I first started playing, I felt the arts were the underdog team, but that it was a good battle. To watch that get more and more dire has been hard.

Lundborg: It doesn’t help that the classical music business has collapsed.

Salerno-Sonnenberg: When I signed a recording contract with a major company, it was like the old days in Hollywood, where you were their property. They spent $15,000 just on my photo for the cover. No more.

‘Still Clawing’

Lundborg: Why did you start NSS Music, your own recording label?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: I was fed up, and I had to try. One reason is the need for me and certain artists to get our work out there after the recording industry died.

At the beginning I thought, “What the hell do you know?” But I just released the tenth recording on this little label.

Lundborg: It’s stressful being an artist. What makes you angry?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: What makes me mad is to see crap rewarded. Here I am on the underdog team, still clawing.

Lundborg: Do you still read all your reviews?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: Yes, but they don’t have the power over me they used to have.

Lundborg: When classical music was more mainstream, you were a frequent guest on the “Tonight” show. What was that like?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: Carson was a unique guy. We got along, we clicked. I was always so happy to see him when he’d come into the make-up room and we would catch up. He respected that I was a young person who worked hard and achieved something. That was his own work ethic, I think.

Lundborg: What’s the one thing you really wanted that success has allowed you to have?

Salerno-Sonnenberg: I bought a place in Belize right on the beach. It’s still being built, but it always lives in the back of my head.


(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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