MSO Guest Violinist Is Electrifying

Global star Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is sensational in Shostakovich and orchestra excels in two other works.

By - Apr 6th, 2015 11:47 am
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

A concert billed as “De Waart Conducts Rachmaninoff” definitely sold short the power and emotion of last weekend’s Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra program. There was Rachmaninoff, for sure, and it was terrific, but as the nice man in the Ginsu knife ad says, “Wait, there’s more!” Lots more.

The MSO, under the baton of Music Director Edo de Waart, uncorked the concert with the exquisite Essay No. 2, Opus 17, by American composer Samuel Barber. For my money, Barber is one of the few composers who never wrote one bad bar of music. The Second Essay begins with a pastoral theme that wanders beautifully from one solo woodwind to another. Sonora Slocum’s plaintive solo flute melody passed to the sure-footed bass clarinet of William Helmers, on to the elegant English horn playing of Margaret Butler, finally tapering smoothly into the expressive oboe playing of Katherine Young Steele, each voice yearning for a place to settle down but never quite finding a home. Barber grows this opening section into large chorales in the strings, horns, and brasses with playing that made the hair on my arms and neck stand on end.

After the introduction, the clarinet and bassoon take off on a manic fugue. Todd Levy and Theodore Soluri are both masters of their respective instruments; the quick and quirky chase can easily trip up lesser mortals, but they nailed it. The handoff to the trumpets—maestros Bill Williams and Alan Campbell—was perfect. Williams and Campbell traded tricky phrases and made them sound easy (listen to almost any recording of this piece and expect to hear nothing close to the quality these two delivered). After the fugue, the final section is a bulked-up recapitulation of the wandering theme at the beginning. I was so excited by this performance that my evening was already complete. But wait, there’s more!

Dmitri Shostakovich’s music is the aural personification of Stalinist Soviet Russia; the melodies murmur darkly of a world reeking of boiled cabbage and vodka. Listening to it gives me the feeling my clothes are shabby and my hands and feet start to feel cold, like I’ve been standing in line for hours for a crust of bread. The pain I feel in Shostakovich’s music is that of the poor man who makes a huge stink about no bread or meat in the hope that a Soviet soldier will put him out of his misery only to discover that not only is the State out of bread and meat, but out of bullets. The Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 in A minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 99, begins in this kind of dreary atmosphere.

Guest violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg did a brilliant job of creating just such an ambience. Taking a page out of Marilyn Horne’s book (“If you want to get people’s attention, sing softly”), Salerno-Sonnenberg floated her sound out in the opening bars at the faintest dynamic, grabbing everyone in Uihlein Hall by the ear and not letting go for forty electrifying minutes. This violin concerto is fiendishly difficult. The architecture requires considerable thought to get from one end of the piece to the other in an intelligent fashion, and the soloist must find superhuman reserves of energy to capture the relentless demands that Shostakovich asks of the violinist. After the cold misery of the Nocturne, which Salerno-Sonnenberg played with exceptional pacing and shape, the Scherzo second movement burst from her violin with a crazed vigor that would have frightened Cossacks. Sparks flew from Salerno-Sonnenberg’s fingertips and, in a cloud of rosin and horsehair, both she and the audience finished the movement breathless and gasping.

After a few moments, in which Salerno-Sonnenberg gulped oxygen and recalibrated adrenaline, she laid into the Passacaglia. The passacaglia theme, begun in the basses and shipped around to the horns—which delivered the theme with ominous power—is then mercilessly played by the solo violin. At the end of this movement is a cadenza that is practically a complete work all on its own. Here, as if she hadn’t already convinced us of her ability as a violin virtuoso, Salerno-Sonnenberg demonstrated what it is to be a great artist. Only the sound of jaws dropping interrupted her huge dynamic range, technical mastery, and a dangerous, edge-of-your-seat musicality. The final movement, Burlesca, races like a troika across the snow with a pack of wolves snarling at the runners. This performance felt dangerous and exhilarating. Salerno-Sonnenberg must have had nothing left at the end of it.

The second half of the program was, as advertised, de Waart conducting Rachmaninoff. Maestro de Waart seems to love the romantic richness and sweep of Rachmaninoff’s music, and the Symphonic Dances, Opus 45, is as luxuriously romantic as any of Rachmaninoff’s works. There were many lovely moments from the orchestra. Sonora Slocum, who shone brightly in both the Barber and the Shostakovich, was exceptional, as were Margaret Butler, William Helmers, Todd Levy, saxophonist Timothy McCallister, the woodwinds, brass, concertmaster Frank Almond, and most gloriously, the lustrous string section of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra sounded wonderful. My only wish was for the Rachmaninoff to have had the same unbridled energy that ran pell-mell through the Shostakovich.

During the final bows, Maestro de Waart presented harpist Danis Kelly with a bouquet of flowers in recognition for her incredible artistic contribution to the orchestra for more than 40 years. Cheers, Danis. You are amazing.

0 thoughts on “Review: MSO Guest Violinist Is Electrifying”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I wasn’t able to attend, but a friend of mine was entirely impressed with Sonneberg’s performance!

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