In Their Own Words: Composer Melinda Wagner and Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Classic Arts Features   In Their Own Words: Composer Melinda Wagner and Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will present the world premiere of Melinda Wagner's Little Moonhead on March 21. The concert will also include violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg performing Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.

Little Moonhead is based on Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. Ms. Wagner's work marks the fourth Brandenburg inspired piece in a project that will encompass all six works with a modern twist.

Wagner and Salerno-Sonnenberg recently chatted with Aaron Grad about their upcoming program and working with Orpheus.



What has it been like for you to be one of the six composers selected for the Orpheus New Brandenburg Project?

It has been an incredible honor to be in the company of such fine composers, all of whom I respect and admire a great deal. Also, it has been a pleasure to create music for Orpheus, and exhilarating _ as well as a bit intimidating _ to be coupled with Bach, whom I revere.

Why do composers love Bach so much?

Bach is a steady presence throughout our lives as musicians. In my own experience, which is shared, I'm certain, by many composers, Bach (and Mozart) represented my first introduction to serious music for the keyboard. Later, I had the life-changing opportunities to sing the greatest choral music ever written _ Bach's Magnificat, for example, and the motet Jesu Meine Freude and the incomparable Mass in B minor. We all learn about four-part harmony through Bach's chorale harmonizations, and we learn tonal counterpoint by studying his fugues. I admire the music of Bach for its clarity, precision, and inventiveness. I love it for its beauty and daring, and for the breadth of its emotive landscape. I can be just as moved by Bach as I am by Mahler!

What was it like writing for basically the same ensemble as Bach's "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 4?

This was a true challenge, especially at first! The anatomy of this ensemble is orchestral in nature, yet each section of players is quite small by modern standards. I am accustomed to composing either for a much larger or much smaller ensemble, so I did have to adjust. In "Brandenburg" No. 4, Bach puts into motion a relatively small number of voices, each presented in broad brushstrokes, through doubling. In addition to all of its lightness and air (and the delicacy provided by soloists), there is a kind of orchestral heft, along with pristine clarity. My own music tends to be much more dense, with many more voices, compound chords, and divisi strings. Ironically, I suspect that Little Moonhead will sound more like a chamber work, perhaps because my "brushstrokes" are pencil-thin.

Your one addition beyond Bach's instrumentation is celesta. What motivated you to include that extra sound?

My one indulgence! I really enjoyed the playful element of contrasting the plucky, overtone-saturated sound of the harpsichord with the sonorous, liquid sound of the celesta. These instruments are worlds apart in obvious ways, yet they can both add a colorful patina, or sheen, to the sound of the ensemble. I used them both as "highlighters," so to speak.

Speaking of liquid, your title and movement names play with the translation of Bach as "brook" or "stream." Did that idea factor into your compositional process?

In the very early stages of my piece, before there were any notes on the page, I thought it might be fun to make a play on words in the music, based upon the translation of the word "bach." Some of my ideas _ the use of the word "rills" in the title of the first movement, for example _ came out of that. There are a lot of overlapping scales and arpeggios throughout the work, but these ultimately came from listening to Bach, not from thinking about his name. Still, such ideas can be like a carrot at the end of a stick for me, providing impetus, especially at the beginning when everything is an unknown.

Words seem like an important part of how you communicate your ideas to the musicians, with instructions like "ham it up" and "show off" in the score. Considering that many composers today stick with the same Italian expressions that have been used for hundreds of years, how did you come to adopt your style of direction?

All composers strive to find comfortable and effective ways of communicating to players through notation and written directions. This is a challenge. When I was younger, I used to flood my scores with information, thinking I was being helpful. Actually, I was cultivating rather wooden performances _ the poor players were so busy trying to read all of my directions that they could not flow with the music! I eventually learned to stand back and let the players own the work. When I eased up on the directions, my music became more alive and free to evolve with each performance. I still use Italian in my scores, but I have found that a pointed phrase in English now and then is very effective. I particularly like using American colloquialisms, such as "ham it up." These words evoke a certain physicality, a sweep of the bow arm _ a smile perhaps!


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Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
photo by Grant Leighton


Besides touring as a performer, you run your own record label, NSS Music, and now you have started as Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra. How do you keep up with all of these activities?

I am so busy doing so many things that very often I don't have time to stop and realize how much I'm doing. I think what happens is that I am very keen on noticing opportunities and events that pop up before me. I'm sort of a detective that way. I am also a detective about practicing. I don't just say, "Let's do it over again." I ask, "What is the actual problem in that passage?" There is this credo that I remember from when I was young: A friend of mine told me a long time ago, "Nadja, there are six solutions to every problem." I think in the back of my head I always carried this around with me, and now, at my age, I realize what it means. Right now _ and I'm sure you know and everybody knows _ there's nothing but brick walls, especially here in the arts. Maybe there are not six solutions, but maybe there are two or three, and I just always try to find them. So I keep up my solo career, and I manage my label, and I'm leading my orchestra, and I have a private life. I don't know that I could do this pace for many more years, because it is really outrageous.

Are you looking forward to your first collaboration with Orpheus?

I'm excited about making music with this phenomenal group. Orpheus is my standard for what I want to do in my orchestra, and I'm very happy to play with them finally as a soloist. I really can't wait to go on tour with them, to see how they operate and see how they have made it work.

Some guest artists come to Orpheus excited to take the lead in a way that they usually cannot. Others look forward to soliciting ideas from the musicians. With your long experience as a concerto soloist, plus your more recent activities as a music director, do you have a sense of what your approach will be?

My tendency is to have my own ideas about things. I know the piece extremely well, I've recorded it with my orchestra, and so I have experience with the piece. The demand on the orchestra is far greater than normal; musicians are asked to do thing they don't normally do. This is not our training as classical players. So I come with a lot of information and ideas about the piece. I'm looking forward to opening up the box for the whole orchestra to have fun with this. I know they will!

How did you first become acquainted with the music of Piazzolla?

I was introduced to Piazzolla by [guitarists] Sergio and Odair Assad. There is just no repertoire for two guitars and violin, so everything had to be brought in by Sergio, either originally written or arranged. He asked me one day, "Have you ever heard of Piazzolla?" I really knew nothing about this composer. I started to listen to some of the music, and it was a no-brainer how it hit my sensibility as a person and as a player. I was lucky enough to become experienced with this music through the Assads, because they know so much about it. Sergio made a number of arrangements for us to play, including three out of the four Seasons.

What appeals to you about this particular repertoire?

The Seasons that Piazzolla wrote are phenomenally melodic and rhythmically pulsing tunes. The unusualness of this particular version is the arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov, written for Gidon Kremer. It is probably one of the greatest arrangements I have ever heard in my life, right up there with [Ravel's arrangement of Mussorgsky's] Pictures at an Exhibition. So when I heard this piece, even though I had been playing Piazzolla for about ten years, I was completely blown away. It was akin to the first time I heard the Shostakovich [Violin Concerto No. 1] recording on the radio. It was like a telegram: "Here you are_ã_sign here_ã_this is yours."

Piazzolla's style calls on different idiomatic sounds than standard classical repertoire. Was there anything you had to do to find and incorporate these sounds?

The violin is a phenomenal instrument in the sense that it has such a broad range of sound. I have always wondered why violinists use the same sound all the time when the instrument can do so much. Piazzolla's violinist, Fernando Suarez Paz, went and found sounds that no other violinist ever could find. Listening to him play helped me a lot. It sort of gave me a visa, a green card to go and experiment and find a sound that matches the music.

Piazzolla wrote about how Nadia Boulanger encouraged him to pursue his own personal sound, a story echoed by so many composers who visited her teaching studio. It reminds me of similar anecdotes I've read (including from you) about the experience of studying violin with Dorothy DeLay. Do you see a parallel between what Boulanger did for composers and what DeLay did for violinists?

I think it's a good analogy. The magic of DeLay is that she was able to recognize the different personality _ and therefore the entryway into the brain and the heart _ of each student. She had her own technique and her own system of teaching, but the way that she communicated that system was different for every single student. And she had so many students! That, in itself, is such an accomplishment. They talk about how she had a degree in psychology, and I'm sure that helped. Also, DeLay came from being a teaching assistant to Ivan Galamian, a great pedagogue who I also studied with when I was very young. I think that DeLay saw what a great system can produce, and also how it can stifle. I was very lucky to study with Galamian and then with DeLay. His system was spectacular if it worked for you. I would go to my lessons and say, "But why should I put my thumb there? My thumb is longer than your thumb." I was always asking, "But why?" For that reason, I got this reputation for being very rebellious. So then I came to DeLay, who saw this in me and realized she could not teach me the same as her two o'clock student or her four o'clock student. She would never stifle any student's musical ideas, even if she knew they were not going to work. She would find a way to manipulate that kid's thinking so that they then realized it was not going to work. With DeLay, everything was my idea. Of course it wasn't, but I thought it was at the time. Her genius was that she was able to communicate to each student in the language that they understood.

The 8 PM concert will be held at Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage.

For tickets and further information visit Carnegie Hall.

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