Tom Strini

Salerno-Sonnenberg, the intense violinist

Violinist Salerno-Sonnenberg's triumphant return; Higdon's enchanting "blue cathedral;" reinvigorated "New World" Symphony.

By - Mar 8th, 2013 07:01 pm

Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg. Photo courtesy of Grant Communications.

Violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, long absent from the Milwaukee Symphony’s roster of guest artists, returned Friday with Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, the ideal showcase for her operatic sensibility.

The concerto begins with a declamatory line for the violin. Salerno-Sonnenberg made a gripping, impossibly long sigh of the first note, an open G just barely there throughout one very long, very slow full bow. She parsed and accented the following recitative to get the maximum ache out of the dissonances and thus the maximum relief in their consonant resolutions. The introduction was like a soliloquy — To be, or not to be?

With the question decided, the violinist, music director Edo de Waart and the MSO tore into the adamant first theme. Salerno-Sonnenberg (and the composer) remained in the realm of speech, but this was a fiery oration, driven ahead by an urgently pulsing orchestra. The three parties built it to an enormous climax. Only then did speech rhythms give way to lyric melody. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s warm timbre and generous phrasing made a most ardent aria of Bruch’s second theme.

That theme has a cousin in the principal theme of the second movement, and Salerno-Sonnenberg made both sound like first cousins of any number of Puccini arias. Puccini had a way of  making the first half of arias and love duets a climb to an emotional breakthrough; the second brightens into a rush of emotional relief. Salerno-Sonnenberg read Bruch’s themes that way, in an utterly convincing interpretation.

The violinist, notorious in her younger days for her dancerly stage presence, has settled down some. But she’s still not exactly subdued. I rather like the way that she just has a good time up there, bopping with the beat, turning around to smile at the orchestra when she’s not playing, sometimes jumping into the first violin section part for the sheer fun of it. In the fleet third movement, especially, she started dancing with special vigor a few bars before entrances. This entertained, but also served a clear musical purpose: She was getting the momentum of the orchestra into her body and mind, so she was up to speed when she entered.

At great speed, she didn’t articulate every last note cleanly, but that mattered little. The fullness of gesture, the sense of abandon to the music, the emotional intensity of her playing made for thrilling music and as rousing an ovation I’ve witnessed at an MSO matinee all season. Salerno-Sonnenberg, de Waart and the orchestra responded with an exquisite reading of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise as an encore.

De Waart opened with Jennifer Higdon’s mesmerizing blue cathedral, music made mostly of luxuriant pastel chords that bleed one into the next. All manner of gently chiming metal percussion, including little balls filled with bells handled by anyone in the orchestra not playing otherwise, add the background sparkle of a starry night.

But blue cathedral is more than enchanting atmosphere. Wandering melodies rise out of solo winds, and those melodies combine on the way to a high, ecstatic peak. The music accumulates meaning as ideas transform and overlap, and you can hear it develop through the veil of harmony and the metallic shimmer. Higdon maintains the tension level of the climax for a very long time, by launching from it a high string tune harmonized in edgy seconds. The melodies splinter into a polytonal wonderland, the bells rise to alarm level, a chattering fanfare comes out of nowhere and takes us to a second, wholly unexpected, climax. A slow denouement returns us to the quivering serenity of bells and muted extended chords.

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) filled the second half. The New World Symphony also filled Thursday evening, as the subject of a special Beyond the Score event. Gerard McBurney’s excellent presentation about Dvořák and his experiences in America made a new experience of a work I’ve loved since I was a kid and have heard a thousand times. You can view McBurney’s multi-media show here, and I suggest you do before attending the repeat performance Saturday evening.

Knowing how Dvořák immersed himself in African-American music and visited Native Americans when they came to New York with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and understanding the influence of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” enhanced the listening experience both Thursday night and Friday afternoon. So did McBurney’s surprisingly deep analysis of the melodic relationships and harmonic bedrock of the music.

But all of that would have been for naught without the vigor, precision and insight that de Waart and the MSO lavished on Dvořák’s masterwork. They were not about to let any listener take this over-familiar work for granted. They made it as stirring and magnificent as if it were their proudest world premiere.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 9. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Next up for the Milwaukee Symphony: The return of Bartók’s Bluebeard, complete with the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures, March 15-17.

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