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Girl Behaving Badly

New York
Metropolitan Museum
04/21/2004 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Trio, Op. 9 No. 1
Johannes Brahms: Sonata, Op. 100
Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Benny Kim (violins)
Evan Wilson (viola)
Eric Kim (cello)
Anne-Marie McDermott (piano)

“Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
You can’t always get by upon a smile, girl.”

Cat Stevens

Recently this reviewer wrote about how hard it was not to like baritone Bryn Terfel, even while not enjoying his Carnegie Hall recital. Conversely, it is often difficult to like Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, whose quixotic performances have been expostulated with generous portions of psycho babble ad nauseam in columns purportedly interested only in musical matters. We all know that she is fragile; those of us who were uninformed cannot ignore the film “Speaking in Strings” and its disarmingly personal approach to this troubled artist’s toils and foibles. And yet, one sometimes has the sneaking suspicion that the deficiencies in the deportment department might just be a tad exaggerated to generate a flicker of publicity. After all, here I am spilling ink on this very subject.

No critic is fonder of Nadja the performer than this one. Often I have praised her to other less enlightened local gentlemen and ladies of the press, who, at this point, pretty much unanimously dismiss her as a “head case”. What they are missing are some of the most inspired evenings in memory, a powerful example the positively superhuman plunge into the swirling waters of the Shostakovich Concerto # 1 this season with, significantly, the Minnesota Orchestra (since the top ensembles and she no longer get along). However, there are also nights like this one…

The evening was an unmitigated disaster. The “cover band” turned out to be a badly out of tune string trio (they did correct this condition eventually) who had the audacity to talk to one another between movements about the temperature on the stage. Their only real contribution to the show (and, make no mistake about it, this ultimately smelled like a choreographed event) to set in the stone of our ears a woefully thin tone that would serve as strong contrast to Ms. S-S’s remarkably full-bodied, and generously laced with old-fashioned vibrato, burnished fullness of sonority. The wonderful tone was indeed there for the Brahms, but the reading was surprisingly dull and under-rehearsed, many errors of commission from the violinist and normally rock solid pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. Apparently the audience reaction was a bit slow at the end of the piece, since Ms. S-S almost immediately glared out at us, spit out the phrase “it’s over”, strode off the stage, drawing heat like a villainous wrestler, and not returning even after a respectable amount of applause. One could imagine her partner cajoling her in the wings, but there was no reappearance. Sheer, unforgivable rudeness and, ultimately, it is the music that suffers.

After the interval, the Schumann began reasonably well, but, during the third movement, the group inexplicably simply stopped playing and, after talking it over, started again where they had left off. Hoist by their own petard, they were then halted by hearty applause at the end of this scherzo. Nadja interrupted the proceedings yet again to take all of the blame upon her own sequined shoulders. But this act of contrition was hardly enough for those who paid top dollar for seats. From there the performance raveled like a ball of yarn with a kitten, the players openly laughing and conversing. My companion remarked that the entire experience was like summer music camp. That is perhaps the most charitable spin possible.

Of course, the magic of this unique performer is in her ability to come dangerously close to the edge and, therefore, sometimes falling off. Without significant risk-taking, there is little creativity, little true excitement. To be invested in Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, one must be able to take the bad with the good. Come to think of it, two of my favorite singers have always been Maria Callas and Janis Joplin.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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