Salerno-Sonnenberg takes her name from that of her mother, Josephine Salerno (an Italian pianist) and her stepfather (her father left the family when she was three months old). In her native Rome, Salerno-Sonnenberg's natural talent for the violin was discovered early, and first nurtured there by Marianna Gabbi. At the age of eight, Salerno-Sonnenberg and her mother resettled in New Jersey so Nadja could begin study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; during this time her mother made ends meet by teaching music in city schools. Salerno-Sonnenberg completed her education at the Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay.
In 1981, Salerno-Sonnenberg's professional career was launched by a win at the Naumberg Foundation award; this was further amplified by an Avery Fisher career grant in 1983 and several appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1988, Salerno-Sonnenberg began to record for EMI Classics, which promptly released several albums of standard repertoire featuring covers photographs of the violinist in sultry poses; avoiding the "success by marketing" stigma that often accompanies such packaging, she earned the Ovation Debut recording Artist of the Year for her artistry. In 1989, she published Nadja: On My Way, an autobiographical book on her career designed for children.
On Christmas Day 1994, Salerno-Sonnenberg nearly took off the tip of her pinky finger with a knife while slicing vegetables; fortunately, an expert surgeon saved the sliced pinky, but this led to a long period of both personal and professional crisis. In 1997, Salerno-Sonnenberg made some positive changes; she moved from EMI to Nonesuch, whose Salerno-Sonnenberg releases are considerably more serious in tone and presentation, and she signed with management firm ICA (she had previously been with CAM.) January 1999 witnessed the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Speaking in Strings, a warts-and-all feature-length documentary on Salerno-Sonnenberg directed by her childhood friend Paola di Floria. The film was nominated for an Academy Award. That same year, Salerno-Sonnenberg was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize and received an honorary master of musical arts degree from New Mexico State University.
In August 2000, she premiered Mark O'Connor's Double Violin Concerto at the Cabrillo Music Festival with the composer and conductor Marin Alsop and recorded an acclaimed disc for Nonesuch of gypsy music with the Assad Brothers. Salerno-Sonnenberg has appeared as soloist with practically every major orchestra in the world, and is in high demand as a recitalist. While many of her recordings are outstanding, Salerno-Sonnenberg is best experienced in a concert setting, where her innate sense of drama and musical risk-taking are most vivid., Rovi