Her unabashed style - smoking at Yankees games and wisecracking with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" - sometimes overshadowed her intense talent. Her playing was feverish, jittery, accomplished and personal, and audiences had strong feelings one way or another.
A 1999 documentary about her life, "Speaking in Strings," delves into a kitchen mishap that almost took a finger, and a suicide attempt that only failed because a gun jammed. But the 1999 Avery Fisher Prize - the first for women, shared with violinists Sarah Chang and Pamela Frank - proved she was still a major artist.
Now 42, she retains her vitality and perceives life and music with fresh eyes. The Daily News recently spoke to her by phone from her New York apartment.
Q: Why have you always been willing to take chances?
A: Can't really help playing the way I play. It's pointless just to play the notes, because all interpretations would sound the same. I'm very emotional about the music, which affects me tremendously, positive and negative.
Q: Do you ever get tired of playing?
A: You live for the live performance, for the excitement. You have to offer something more than a recording, or what's the point? People have to get a baby sitter, go out to the hall, because they know anything can happen, anything should happen - and, now that I'm an old woman, it's more vibrant on stage than it has ever been.
Q: You've played the Mendelssohn over a thousand times. Do you still have emotional feelings for it?
A: It just doesn't get old. Even in rehearsal, I'm always amazed at how fresh it is. It's much more than just pretty and sweet - that's a testament to the structure. You just don't get tired of playing it.
Q: Why do you choose to stand back near the players?
A: I have no peripheral vision in my left eye, so I stand in the orchestra because I need to. But I also want to be simpatico in bringing vitality to the event for the players, from 60 to 90 people behind me, because it's not their part of the program. I want the player in the last row of the second violins to feel it, too.
Q: You sometimes make music sound improvised.
A: It should sound improvised, especially in a [solo] cadenza. It's hard to verbalize what happens, but in that moment you may be inspired to do something you've never done before, never thought to do before.
Q: Do you have any regrets about such a personal film ["Speaking in Strings"]?
A: Absolutely none. I trusted the director, it was a hell of an experience, and time passes.
Q: After going through those traumatic times, how differently do you see things now?
A: It was a godsend. When I played the instrument again, the love returned. I felt like I was 8 years old again.
Q: How attached do you become to your violin [a 1721 Guarneri], and would you play on another instrument?
A: It makes a ton of difference. Millimeters of size can alter articulation, sound production. Every violin has problem spots, and you learn to work around them and know what it's capable of. If, a half-hour before walking on stage, I could have the greatest violin in the world, I'd keep mine. I've had it eight years, and it becomes a limb.
Q: Do you enjoy the business of performing?
A: Being a soloist these days is no fun. Everyone is in trouble, financially it's bad, and a lot of crap comes before you can play. You have to focus on the positive, the essence of why you do this, and to feel it deep inside you.
Every single flight is another problem. The airport inspectors don't know how to handle an instrument, they won't let you touch it. And it just can't go down those rollers. It's just maddening.
Q: Are there pieces you hope to be asked to play?
A: Bach concertos, always. The Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, the Beethoven Triple Concerto. I do the Brahms Double Concerto a lot.
Q: Are there pieces you'd rather not play?
A: The Paganini concerto. There's absolutely no emotional reward. It's just a long etude.
Q: It's said you phrase like a singer.
A: I learned opera from my grandfather before I even came to this country, and learned a lot from listening to the Met on the radio. A great singer will take the breath at the most musical, logical place, just as the bow changes must sound smooth.
Q: Has your new [Nonesuch] record with the Brazilian brothers, Sergio and Odair Assad, been a liberating experience?
A: I'm very proud of that record. They're great at what they do, and their music is a hoot to play. To come back to Tchaikovsky, to my meat and potatoes, after the Assads, is very good for me. *
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce streets. $30-$51, 215-893-1999.