“Coming to school with your lunch in a paper bag instead of a Partridge Family lunch box was a real stigma when I was in grade school,” says violin superstar Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. “To make matters worse, while all the other kids pulled out bologna or peanut butter on Wonder Bread–many with the crusts carefully cut off by their mothers–I pulled out a long Sicilian peppers-and-egg sandwich, dripping with olive oil.

“If we had show-and-tell with records, I would be stupid enough to walk up after Sonny and Cher and put on the Brahms Violin Concerto–much to the hysterical laughter of the class. ‘You dont know anything about good music!’ I snapped at them as I yanked the record off the phonograph. Before walking out, I turned to the teacher and added, ‘And you don’t know anything about discipline!’ Can you imagine?” she laughs. “I must’ve been 12 years old.”

Being unusual has always been the norm for Salerno-Sonnenberg, now 26, who has taken the generally quiet world of classical music by storm with her staunch and uncompromising individualism. While much of the media attention she has received has concentrated on her unusual concert attire (a hot pink, studded jumpsuit, for example), her wild performance mannerisms (hair flinging in her face, feet stomping, facial grimaces ranging from tears to ecstasy), and her unique personal habits and tastes (a passion for baseball, Godzilla, cigarettes, beer, and opera, among others)–her extraordinary music making often goes almost unnoticed.

Salerno-Sonnenberg is that rara avis among classical performers–one who is not afraid to take chances with standard repertoire pieces, offering her audiences highly personal interpretations charged with raw power and energy. “I don’t want audiences to be passive observers,” she says. “I want audiences to experience a piece of music with me. I’m inviting them in and it’s both scary and wonderful for both of us. My own goal is that my worst playing should still be fabulous–that not one audience member will be left unmoved or disappointed. That’s hard with a tight schedule because you do get tired and you need enough time to sleep and practice. Still, I think it should be the goal of every artist: that at your worst you can still make everybody happy.”

Chicago audiences will have a chance this week to “experience” music with Salerno-Sonnenberg in her first downtown recital as part of the Merrill Lynch Great Performers Series at Orchestra Hall, a program that will include sonatas by Beethoven and Debussy. “I love each of the pieces,” says Salerno-Sonnenberg. “They are conventional pieces that will probably be played unconventionally.”

The unconventional aspects of Salerno-Sonnenberg’s playing include her enormous dynamic range and her naturally beautiful, bright tone. Often phrases come and go with such subtlety that there is a timeless quality to her playing–it breathes beautifully, but the beginnings and ends of notes are almost indiscernible. “So many violinists like to play loud, but I have this uncontrollable urge to play softly. I love it. It’s a selfish thing–I love the sound under my ear. It’s a matter of playing soft passages with enough control so that the audience has to listen carefully for the sound, but focused enough to be heard even in the last row of the hall.” Not that Salerno-Sonnenberg has problems with louder passages, but she feels that many of her colleagues play too loud and don’t incorporate enough contrast. “I cannot understand how someone can get up onstage and play a piece like the Brahms Concerto, which has moods from A to Z, and play it with a sound that only goes from P to Z.”

Salerno-Sonnenberg comes from a musical family and says that it was her grandfather who first taught her to read music. “That is something they don’t teach very well at Curtis or Juilliard–how to really read music.” Perhaps this is one reason she was bored at those schools, where she was known for occasional “pranks” such as dropping water bags outside her dorm window at Curtis or polluting the shower system with grape Kool-Aid at Juilliard.

Ironically, Salerno-Sonnenberg never got her degree because she decided, with some prodding from her teacher, to get very serious about entering the 1981 Naumburg competition. Her preparation was unconventional, to say the least. She looked herself away for two months, leaving only to see her teacher and to do her laundry, and lived on a daily diet of fried sausages, a gallon of Coke, a half gallon of Baskin Robbins peanut-butter-and-chocolate ice cream, three packs of unfiltered cigarettes, and no less than 12 hours of practice a day.

Much to Salerno-Sonnenberg’s amazement, especially since she is an adventurous player rather than the typical careful contest winner, she won the Naumburg and became an instant media folk hero. She was featured on 60 Minutes and the Tonight Show, and in Ms. magazine and Rolling Stone. “I still can’t believe I won,” she says. “It was great because it simply accelerated what I believe would have happened sooner or later anyway. I tried going back to Juilliard the next year but I didn’t do very well. I was playing so many concerts, I was falling behind in classes.”

These days, the brilliant playing of the young Juilliard dropout is being described with superlatives not used for a violinist since Heifetz. She has also just released her first album on Angel/EMI records, playing works for violin and orchestra by Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens, and Massenet–the first album in what promises to be extraordinary recording career.

Her biggest thrill is “playing in the zone,” says Salerno-Sormenberg. “There is nowhere I would rather be. Your fingers are prepared, the music is there, everything is right. You’re having so much fun that you’re physically uncontrollable, and you couldn’t make a mistake if you tried. It’s a feeling that everything has led up to this moment and all the hard work is worth it just for this.” A pause, a sigh, and she adds, “You may have that kind of performance three times a year, and you hope desperately that it will happen in Chicago, but it’s more likely to happen in Sneakers, Idaho.”

Salerno-Sonnenberg will play Tuesday, May 24, at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan, at 8 PM. Call 435-6666 for more.