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Salerno-Sonnenberg showcases her strength on stage Saturday in Great Falls

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nadja 1The term “strong, independent woman” gets thrown around a lot these days.

It’s become somewhat of a joke, as well, with internet memes used for comedic effect with people claiming to be “Strong, independent black women who don’t need no man” who are neither black, nor women.

Hollywood, too, seems to have a fetish for glamorizing strong, independent women in a way that makes them seem unrealistic. Remember Halle Berry in “Catwoman”? Or, how about Pamela Anderson in “Barbed Wire“?

But, see, if you want to find someone who’s the very definition of that idea, look no further than violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. She IS a real strong, independent woman who don’t need no fictional Hollywood movie to prove it.

On Saturday, Salerno-Sonnenberg comes to Great Falls to perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s massive “Violin Concerto No. 1.” The show starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts theater.

She’ll also lead the symphony for three pieces, as well, while commanding her violin much in the same way Leonardo Da Vinci likely controlled his paintbrush as he created the Mona Lisa back in the 1500s, using style, grace, and precision that’s unmatched.

Now, you might be telling yourself, “OK, Jake, so she can play the violin really well, why’s that make her so strong and independent?” She’s gifted, sure, but what makes her this bastion of ‘strength?’

Let’s first start with the piece she’s performing together in concert with the Great Falls Symphony Orchestra.

It’s not just any violin piece, it might be one of THE most gruelling and intensive pieces of all violin concertos ever written.

In an interview with Big Sky State Buzz, Salerno-Sonnenberg compares this Shostakovich to watching all three Godfather movies in one sitting.

“It’s probably one of the biggest monumental concertos ever written for any instrument,” she said. “It’s so demanding technically, emotionally and physically. It’s like watching the Godfather Triology. It’s a big monumental work that I happen to get and I love playing it. It’s a real journey.”

In addition to that, Salerno-Sonnenberg said for this show she’ll be working as the main source of energy for the performers, and the audience members.

She has to lead by example and carry herself in a way so as she’s able to have enough in her to lead the way throughout the entire show.

“I have to be the leader, I have to be strong because everybody is looking to me not only for physical leadership, but musical and for what’s going to be happening,” she said. “Whatever I want to have happen, as a leader I have to do that and that falls on me. It’s a big responsibility for me, but what I like about it is because there’s no conductor, they look to me for that and they have to take more responsibility for their playing.”

Salerno-Sonnenberg’s professional career began in 1981 when she won the Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition. In 1983 she was recognized with an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and in 1988 was Ovations Debut Recording Artist of the Year.

In 1999, Nadja was honored with the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, awarded to instrumentalists who have demonstrated “outstanding achievement and excellence in music.”

In May of that same year, she was awarded an honorary Master of Musical Arts from the New Mexico State University, the first honorary degree the University has ever awarded. Her family emigrated to the United States when she was just 8-years-old, where she began studying at The Curtis Institute of Music. She later studied with Dorothy DeLay at The Juilliard School.

Her credentials are relatively unmatched, but Salerno-Sonnenberg’s real source of strength goes far beyond what she’s done musically.

It was a series of life challenges that tested her in intimately personal ways.  These challenges were part of the focus of the 1999 documentary about her life “Speaking in Strings.” The documentary, directed by Paola di Florio, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000.

The film follows her and tells her story of how she became to be one of the most-respected and most-talented musicians on the planet. It shows how she learned to deal with growing up without a father, as he abandoned her and her mother when she was only three months old.

It also details several life-altering challenges that served to help strengthen the fabric of who she is as a musician, and more importantly, as a person.

These challenges started on Christmas day in 1994. While she was cutting onions for a family meal, she cut off the tip of her little finger. It was a serious injury which could have ruined her career.

The injury was so bad that she had to start playing pieces using only three fingers.

In an interview with Violinist.com, she talked about that experience and how it affected her as a performer.

“At that time in my career, I was completely overworked. I was starting to hit existential despair about playing and it was becoming very clear to me the sacrifices I had to make in order to keep this career on the level that it was. I was overworked and tired and questioning things — and I had this horrible accident,” she said. “I thought it was a sign, a really clear sign. Of course, the people who were closest to me were also supporting (that idea,) because what do you tell someone who is a solo violinist who lost a finger. You just want to try to re-frame it.”

If you’re looking for further proof showing her strength, it comes from the fact that for four months after cutting her finger, she played it all with only three fingers. She could have quit, but she chose to continue no matter how much more difficult it could have been.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

But, the shock from that incident left her feeling more and more depressed and isolated, as it would anyone in her situation.

Then, starting in 1995, she started receiving letters, and being stalked, by a crazed fan who wanted to “create a new race with her.” Her friend John Cerminaro, was concerned about her safety and suggested that she get a gun, for protection.

All of this started to become harder and harder for her to deal with and she started suffering what Cerminaro calls an “existential crisis,” not only from these events but by the fact that she, as she explains in the movie, ” I lost the balance. I lost what I had in my personal life, I was gone a lot, and I hated being gone.” She had also been recovering from a failed relationship.

Later that year, her friend, pianist Leslie Stifelman came over to visit her. She saw her holding the gun, waving it around in an unsafe manner.

Stifelman took the gun from her and hid it, but, she soon found it, locked herself in the bathroom and pointed it at her head. She pulled the trigger, but it misfired.

Salerno-Sonnenberg said in the film that just because the gun didn’t go off, it didn’t mean that anything changed after the fact. She still had all of these feelings, fears, and difficulties she was dealing with that prompted her to make that choice to start with.

However, despite battling with this depression, loneliness, and internal crisis, she returned to her instrument, just as she had when she cut her finger. Her strength had been tested again, and again she had overcome it.

Getting back to Saturday’s program, The Nadge, as she’s sometimes affectionately called, says this Shostakovich piece will always be very personal for her, and part of that reason is due to the emotions she says it encapsulates as she plays it.

“It makes you feel everything that a human can feel,” she said. “There’s excitement and fear and desolation, desperation and, you just feel crazy. It just has everything, it really has everything.”

It was this emotion that led to some consternation when she first came onto the national scene, as well.

Salerno-Sonnenberg faced a barrage of negative reviews from writers who felt that she “moved too much” during her performances, or that she did not play the pieces as authentically as they felt they should be played.

She brushed these criticisms aside, however, and now many of the critics that at one time berated her for her style, now love it.

And while Salerno-Sonnenberg says she rarely gets nervous anymore about playing pieces such as the Shostakovich, she’s still human and does still get a little scared every time she’s about to play.

“I don’t get nervous playing this piece, but it’s still scary,” she said. “Especially the Credenza, which looms large and there’s a huge time where I’m just playing by myself and I have to pull it off. For me at this point, the challenge is for me to generate enough energy so everybody behind me can match it, but also keep a check on myself physically so I can last through the whole piece. It’s like doing the triathlon doing this piece so I have to balance the energy so I can have it by the fourth movement, which is so big and crazy.”

It’s rare to see someone like Nadja come through Great Falls. Someone who’s been in the spotlight for so long, someone who’s had her successes, and failures, widely publicized in ways that most of us will never know how it feels.

But, through it all, she’s still been able to stay human and enjoy the little things in life.

Salerno-Sonnenberg said when she’s not playing she loves to cook. She said recently she’s been making some “delicious sour dough bread” to go with the Italian food she makes so well. She’s also a diehard New York Yankees fan, a big lover of all things Captain Kirk from the original Star Trek. And, when she has the time, she loves to fish.

She said while she won’t have the time to explore the shores of the Missouri River this weekend, she said she’d love to get back and do it someday.

“It’s  something I love to do,” she said. “There won’t be enough time for it this time out, but I’d love to come there and give it a shot one of these days.”

Tickets to Saturday’s show with the Great Falls Symphony are $47, $52 or $57 per person. They can be purchased online here, or by calling 455-8514 before 6 p.m. on Friday.

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