60II: One Tough Cookie (CBS News, 1999)
When 60 Minutes Co-Editor Morley Safer first profiled violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg 12 years ago, he focused on her extraordinary intensity. She was somehow not of the classical music world, but of some other more demanding place.
As he discovered when he recently returned for an update for 60 Minutes II, she has paid a price for that intensity. One performance almost ended her career, and another almost ended her life.
The 60 Minutes II segment on Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg aired on Wednesday, March 24, 1999, on CBS Television.
Critics described her talent as awesome, even frightening. But that’s not all they talked about. There was the picture of the 1977 New York Yankees enshrined in her violin case; the Camel filters never far from the sheet music; the tag-sale fashion and the “don’t give a damn” walk. Then there’s that face which mirrors the emotion of every note, every phrase, turning a mere performance into a kind of personal exorcism.
“I get good reviews for my playing and in addition they go, ‘she acts really weird, but she’s a valid artist'” said Sonnenberg. “I feel possessed sometimes when I play. And I don’t know what my right cheek is doing. I have really more important things to think about.”
Salerno-Sonnenberg was born 37 years ago in Rome, to an American mother and a Russian father who abandoned the family when Nadja was only three months old. Her mother, Josephine, a piano teacher, bought her a violin when she was five. Three years later, she arrived in America for advanced training in violin and other subjects.
In the 1970s, she barely touched the violin. But under the guidance of the Juilliard School’s Robert Mann and Dorothy Delay, and coached by Itzhak Perlman, Nadja won the prestigious Naumburg International Violin Competition and with it, a Carnegie Hall debut.
“She’s passionate, she’s quick, she’s brilliant,” Delay said 12 years ago. “She has no patience for anything that she thinks is not sensible or to the point. Ten years, if things go beautifully, she may be at the absolute top. “
“I feel as much as I love to play and make music, that if somebody were to tell me right now that’s all you’re going to have and you will never feel fulfilled other than on stage, I would be very, very, very sad,” Sonnenberg said when she was first profiled. “It’s not enough for me. It won’t be enough for me in the future just to play the violin.”
It was in-your-face music, and it was written all over her face. But four years ago, the violinist’s worst nightmare came true.
“What happened was that I cut off the end of my pinky finger…in my kitchen slicing onions, that’s what happened,” Sonnenberg says. “It was in one sense an extremely unlucky event and also, in another, the luckiest day of my life; the way things happened, the surgeon that I had, how it was reattached, and how it’s all okay again.”
In only two months, she was back on stage. But for a time, it meant she had to re-learn a lifetime of music. “Things that you know for years, from maybe from when you were a kid, I had to turn around,” she says. “Fingerings that were imbedded in me had to be changed. I can’t really explain how difficult that is.”
Months later, she suffered a severe breakdown, attempted suicide [featured in the Academy Award nominated film “Speaking in Strings”], and went into therapy. Upon returning to the concert hall, she seemed stronger than ever. She got rave reviews for a CD she made of the music from Humoresque, the stylish 1946 film about a great violinist who puts love second to music.
Will she end up without someone to come home to? Says Sonnenberg: “You have to have someone to come home to. I’m speaking specifically of children. In which, it doesn’t look… it doesn’t look good. It’s not out of the question, but it doesn’t look good.”
But, she says, she is extremely happy: “Now I enjoy. I really enjoy it. I have to tell you, most of the time, I walk on stage and I just… I’m happy to be here. I’ve worked hard for this. And it’s a good feeling.”