It didn't look like a special occasion, when The Wolf Trap Barns opened its chamber music season last night. The audience numbered only about 100, and feature performer Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has not yet fully mastered the art of stage presence. But those who closed their eyes, ignoring the many empty seats and focusing on the music, heard a young violinist who is already in a class with Itzhak Perlman.
At 21, Salerno-Sonnenberg has already achieved a very high level of musicianship. In terms of pure technique, versatility and depth of interpretation, though she will probably need some professional visual repackaging suitable for television before she achieves the full recognition her talent deserves.
Musically, she has it all right now, and I can't imagine what she will be like at 50 when her experience has seasoned her remarkable abilities -- perhaps a violinist at the level of Joseph Szigeti. Last night's program was very much that of a young performer intent on showing what she can do. It ranged from Beethoven and Faure' to Stravinsky, Gershwin and Ravel, from deep emotion beautifully expressed to high-level playfulness and some of the most dazzling virtuoso fireworks in the violin repertoire. She triumphed in every department, bringing out the wistfulness in the slow movement of Beethoven's Sonata in C minor, playing Heifetz's arrangement of "It Ain't Necessarily So" with a devilish swagger and negotiating the mind-boggling technical traps of Ravel's "Tzigane" with almost effortless ease.
Gail Niwa, a pianist of high technical accomplishment and stylistic sensitivity, was a first-class partner.
The program opened with Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne," and from the very beginning, although this music is not tremendously expressive, the violinist gave clear hints of the wonders to come. She was particularly impressive in the gutsy, harsh sounds she produced in the finale -- exactly the kind of contrast Stravinsky had in mind for the prettiness that had gone before.
The problem with Beethoven's Sonata in C-minor, Opus 30, No. 2, is that it lacks a nickname like the brilliant "Kreutzer" or the slight but charming "Spring" sonatas. But it is a prime example of the intense emotional communication Beethoven was beginning to achieve early in his middle period, very brilliant and dramatic in its first movement, richly expressive in the slow movement, light and lyric, fast and impetuous in the last two sections. The violinist was equal to all of these expressive challenges, as she was to the jazzy style of Gershwin and the doublestops, harmonics, left-hand pizzicato and gypsy frenzy of the Ravel. It was a triumph, even if there were not many there to witness it.