When Roman-born violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg started out, back in 1981, she clashed with the stereotype of a female prodigy: instead of a demure young thing with a graceful, melodious instrumental voice, she was forceful and passionate, favoring a punkish getup onstage. Despite her technical brilliance, she was pigeonholed as a show-off; not every conductor would tolerate her swagger, and her detractors claimed that her flamboyance limited her repertoire. Now in her late 30s, Salerno-Sonnenberg has answered most criticisms of her playing: she’s learned when to tone down her fieriness in the service of the music, and in 1999 she shared the coveted Avery Fisher Prize with two other female violinists, the first women ever awarded that honor. Her brash, telegenic persona has turned out to be an asset too–she’s appeared on the Tonight Show at least half a dozen times and was recently the subject of a film documentary, Speaking in Strings. Fortified by a Juilliard education, she seems sure of her ability to connect with a mass audience, tackling popular songs without the self-consciousness that bedevils so many would-be crossover artists: her 1998 CD Humoresque (Nonesuch) includes spontaneous, heartfelt renditions of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “Embraceable You.” Her latest CD is even more unorthodox: a stunning collaboration with Brazilian guitar duo Sergio and Odair Assad that mixes traditional Gypsy songs–Spanish, Turkish, French–with originals inspired by them. (Perhaps Salerno-Sonnenberg means the disc as a sly nod to the critics who’ve compared her to a Gypsy fiddler.) The Assad brothers have built a reputation adapting Baroque keyboard works for guitar–in fact, most of the arrangements here are Sergio’s–and on a song like “Fantasy on ‘Dark Eyes'” the guitars imitate a piano, locked in an intricate duet with the violin. Dazzling give-and-take between the instruments adds heat to the stylish, spirited playing; all three musicians seem at home with the material, swinging between its emotional extremes with exhilarating ease. I’d never heard the Assads tackle this kind of music before, so I was wary at first, but the trio’s variations on Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” validate this enterprise all by themselves. Friday, 8:30 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.

Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marina Chavez.