It was Christmas 1994.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the renowned classical violinist newly in residence at Loyola University’s School of Music, was cooking a holiday meal for a house full of guests. The game was on in the other room. Christmas carols played on the stereo. As she was chopping onions, her attention drifted — maybe someone called her name, she isn’t quite sure — and in a quick second she had sliced through her left pinkie finger, severing the tip.
“I looked down, and my life had completely changed,” said Salerno-Sonnenberg. “I went into shock. They tell that I was saying ‘I’m never going to play again’ and ‘Who’s going to pay the bills?’”
For Salerno-Sonnenberg, it was a life-altering moment that required her to completely rethink her approach to the violin, but for fans of classical music, it’s just another chapter in the remarkable story of one of contemporary classical music’s most bombastic figures.
Salerno-Sonnenberg’s life and career are often summed up as series of ups and down: She grew up a baseball-loving child prodigy in New Jersey, educated at the Curtis Institute of Music and at Julliard. She won the Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition in 1981 (youngest-ever prize winner), received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1983, and was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize for “outstanding achievement and excellence in music” in 1999. She appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and on “60 Minutes.”
But beneath the success, there were ongoing bouts of depression. There was the kitchen accident and the challenge of learning how to play all over again while her finger healed. Later, there was a failed suicide attempt. Then finally, redemption and rebranding as the famed soloist, after years of jetting from gig to gig and spending nights in hotel rooms alone, began collaborating with other musicians, eventually accepting the position of Music Director for San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra.
So much to teach
While these are the big moments, good and bad, that have come to define Salerno-Sonnenberg’s life in the public eye, her new role as artist-in-residence at Loyola ensures that her legacy as a musician is more than just a timeline of her highs and lows.
“I have so, so much information and experience that lives inside of this body that I just have to shed it,” said Salerno-Sonnenberg. “It’s the time now to pass it on. I have to pass it on, because what else is there?”
It’s no surprise that in her first position as an educator, Salerno-Sonnenberg is taking an unconventional approach. At Loyola, Salerno-Sonnenberg will be working with the School of Music’s chamber orchestra, transforming the group into a conductorless ensemble, where she’ll be playing alongside the students rather than conducting them from behind a music stand.
The idea of a conductorless ensemble isn’t new (Baroque era orchestras have routinely operated without conductors), but only in the past few decades have more and more contemporary musicians embraced the notion. It’s particularly unusual in an academic environment, since playing without a conductor requires students to develop a heightened sense of musicianship that sometimes goes beyond the fundamentals of a traditional music education.
“You know, honestly, I’m not all that interested in teaching how to play the violin, but this is different,” said Salerno-Sonnenberg. “This kind of training is so much more intense, and by me sitting in the chair and leading, I can teach them more about how to play their instruments.”
In addition to working with Loyola students during her frequent visits to New Orleans, Salerno-Sonnenberg will also offer a series of masterclasses and performances at the university’s uptown campus. Her residency will also include community engagement — on her most recent trip, Salerno-Sonnenberg worked with students at Ben Franklin, Lusher, and De La Salle high schools.
Known for her intensity both on and off the stage, Salerno-Sonnenberg hopes to channel the energy of New Orleans’ young musicians and teach them that good music means more than just playing the notes on the page.
“Of course, there’s a great respect for what’s on the page. Those are the notes we have to play because that’s what the composer wrote,” said Salerno-Sonnenberg. “But how much can any composer put on the page? You can put certain notations, but you can’t really put soul. You can’t notate that. That’s the vibrancy of music making.”