'Discovery' at The Barns: The art of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Opening series concert features eclectic, mostly 20th century program. Photo: Christian Steiner

VIENNA, Va., October 20, 2013 – Wolf Trap kicked off its 2013-2014 classical “Discovery Series” at The Barns this Friday past with an intriguing, eclectic program of mostly 20th century compositions for violin solo. The featured soloist was Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and exquisitely skilled violinist who, if she’s not yet being billed as “legendary” is certainly close to achieving that status. Better yet, she was accompanied by pianist Anne-Marie McDermott who, well, simply did some of the best accompanying we’ve had the pleasure of hearing to date.

Underwritten in part by a continuing bequest from the Catherine Filene Shouse Education Fund, the Discovery Series of recitals is treasured, particularly by Northern Virginia music lovers, as one of the remaining bastions of classical music at the Wolf Trap complex which, like other arts complexes of its size, has increasingly relied on more pop, folk, and rock programming in order to compete with other music venues.

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. (Credit: Christian Steiner)

All Discovery Series concerts are recorded live and later rebroadcast on public radio.

Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s October 18 program was cleverly built around two “big” compositions—Sergei Prokofiev’s brutalist Sonata No. 1 in F-minor, Op. 80, and Gabriel Fauré’s somewhat kinder, gentler and definitely more romantic Sonata in A-major, Op. 13.

Stitched in between were shorter works by contemporary American composers Charles Wuorinen and Michael Daugherty and Estonian minimalist Arvo Pärt. Appetizer-length pieces like these are often the best way to slip some new music into a concert or recital program without scaring away prospective concertgoers, and all three turned out to be well worth hearing.

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The artists requested, effectively, that the evening’s first two works—Mr. Pärt’s 1978 composition entitled “Spiegel im Spiegel” (roughly, “Mirror within a Mirror”)—and the Prokofiev sonata be allowed to unfold consecutively without applause. Good choice. Mr. Pärt’s contemplative, tonal, Zen-like, minimalist piece, a portion of which can be heard in the trailer to this month’s hit film, “Gravity,” weaves an uncanny, spiritual atmosphere in the surrounding space. It proved a surprisingly effective mood-setter and curtain raiser for the Prokofiev, which the artists commenced to perform after a brief pause.

Composer Arvo Pärt in 2011. (Wikipedia, via Estonian Foreign Ministry)

The Prokofiev picked up where the Pärt left off, launching almost inauspiciously into the opening “Andante assai” first movement so quietly that Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s violin—which she played somewhere in the range between ppp and pppp—was barely audible.

This sonata’s somewhat tentative beginning, however soon proves the musical equivalent of the lighter, early moments of a movie in the “Halloween” series, before horror and disaster strike early and often, seemingly out of nowhere.

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Composed over a lengthy period of time that included the years of the Second World War, Prokofiev’s sonata—which consists of four movements played either without pause or with short suspended pauses between each—strikes out savagely after its tranquil opening bars, its aural onslaught reflecting almost viscerally the composer’s terrors during the war years, in and around which Stalin carried out his own epic terror campaign against his fellow citizens. It was waged with particular viciousness toward leading edge composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

There is little that is pretty in this sonata, although it does occasionally surprise with an astonishingly lyrical moment here and there. Its overall effect, however, is one of grimness, horror and revulsion. It grasps traditional tonality at times only with its fingernails, preferring instead to lash out with terrifying dissonance and howls of anguish, which alternate between the violinist and the piano. And yet it is viscerally exciting in its own peculiar, distinctive way.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev as a young man. (Wikipedia)

Both artists attacked this work with every bit of the ferocity the composer called for, pulling back between attacks for what seemed like brief, musical intermissions where the violin held forth with ghostly, repeated figures and weird glissandi.

In short, both artists, performing as if a single unit, presented one of the most violent, terrifying, yet virtuosic and impressive performances of this work that one could imagine. It was rough stuff but fantastically presented. One needed the intermission that followed simply to recover from this memorable but disconcerting performance. (And likewise, unsurprisingly, both the violin and the piano had to be thoroughly retuned as well.)

The recital’s second half opened in a lighter vein. Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg appeared first to perform Michael Daugherty’s brief, sassy “Viva” for solo (unaccompanied) violin which, as the artist briefly explained, was the composer’s riff on the Rat Pack days of Las Vegas with a particular hat tip to Sammy Davis, Jr. We’re not quite sure we detected Sinatra & Co. in this syncopated, often jazzy little piece, but it did serve admirably to lighten the mood and waft away any storm clouds remaining from the Prokofiev.

Ms. McDermott next stepped in for a short, solo turn on the piano, this time performing the spiky second movement from Charles Wuorinen’s “Fourth Piano Sonata.” Mr. Wuorinen’s Sonata, or at least its second movement, was in a considerably more modernist vein, vigorous and pulsating in its attack, echoing the Prokofiev sonata to some extent but a bit more scampering and antic.

Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. (Courtesy Wolf Trap)

As in the Prokofiev, Ms. McDermott’s ability to bring out the more percussive aspects of the piano made her short excursion into Mr. Wuorinen’s sonata movement a notable success, with notes clearly defined and remarkably free of muddiness in the pedaling.

The artists concluded with an often charming and at times quite exciting reading of Gabriel Fauré’s early Violin Sonata in A-major, which debuted in 1877. Romantic in tone, approach, and structure, the sonata only hints at the composer’s later, interesting excursions into extended tonality, an area he increasingly explored both at and after the turn of the 20th century.

After all the angry to jazzy material earlier in this recital, the Fauré allowed Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg to demonstrate her considerable skills in a more lyrical vein. Her tight, accurate passagework and considerable range of emotion brought a brightness and a frisson of excitement to this breezy yet admirably complex sonata, which she brought to a dramatic, satisfying conclusion with the rich and almost orchestral accompaniment provided by Ms. McDermott.

The audience responded to the Fauré—and indeed to the other works on the program as well—with considerable enthusiasm, to which the artists responded by taking a light, elegant and friendly approach toward their single encore, a violin and piano version of Fritz Kreisler’s lilting “Midnight Bells” waltz.

French composer Gabriel Fauré in a 1907 photograph. (Wikipedia)

The Kreisler was a fitting postscript to a virtually perfect recital performed by two highly skilled and respected artists who, as longtime friends and musical associates for many years, create the kind of music perfection that can only come from the hearts and souls of performers who know each other well.

Rating: *** ½  (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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