Speaking in Strings (2001)
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Critic Reviews for Speaking in Strings
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Audience Reviews for Speaking in Strings
Speaking in Strings directed by Paola di Florio Speaking in Strings is a documentary whose subject embodies much of the turmoil, anguish, and occasional heartbreak that afflicts many exceedingly gifted artists. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is considered by many to be one of the premiere solo violinists in the world. Her performances betray a singular passion that has strangely put off certain critics who claim she is too demonstrative for their tastes. They further claim that she lets her strong personality overpower the voice of the composer who they believe have the last word in any interpretation. Nevertheless, she is revered by many for the same reasons that put off the other critics. Through considerable archival footage the film clearly reveals a woman who has brought a level of intensity into the classical music arena that cannot be overestimated. Sonnenberg claims that music has saved her life on more than one occasion. Still, it was something akin to fate or chance that saved her when she was suffering through a deep and unrelenting depression. She’d purchased a gun and after phoning a friend who rushed over she picked it up and frantically darted about her apartment. The friend hid the weapon but she managed to find it and locked herself in the bathroom. She says she actually put the gun to her head and pulled the trigger but it jammed. Two weeks later she was back playing and gradually, painstakingly, the fog lifted. The cliche of the troubled artist is well documented. There are many who for whatever reason seem to be on a collision course with their own mortality. Sonnenberg doesn’t come across as a woman with a particular death wish yet she seems innately aware of tragedy and its implications. She is able to transform her darkest, most foreboding thoughts into each composition she tackles. If this is what is meant by putting too much of herself into the pieces that she plays then perhaps those early critics have an argument. But, ultimately, it is this ability that allows Sonnenberg to transform various works while maintaining their essence. Suffice to say the music in the film is simply intoxicating. It’s haunting, uplifting, and most certainly creates a mood that is transcendent. It’s particularly gratifying to watch Sonnenberg put every ounce of her being into her performances. It’s thrilling to watch a human being who is at the very pinnacle of her profession and who plays with such unyielding conviction. It’s very much a high wire act as Sonnenberg plays at a level that demonstrates a rare and peculiar genius that is the result of long hours of excruciating work and a natural felicity with the instrument that cannot be taught. Her mother describes her performances as communion and this is as apt a description as one can articulate. Sonnenberg is the product of a musical family and she became introduced with the violin at a very young age. She recalls with fondness sitting with her grandfather listening to opera as he described in minute deal everything that was happening. She remembers in grade school that the class was to bring in their favorite thing in the world. She brought in an album of Brahms and was ridiculed for it. She says she tore the record from the turntable and called everyone idiots before storming out and running all the way home. It’s an apt image of how classical music is grossly underappreciated in this country. Granted, it is considered elitist by many who have not been trained to fully appreciate it for its nuances and color. Sonnenberg exists in a world that remains closed off to most because it demands so much from the listener and can be subsequently superficially dismissed for this reason. There is an incident in the film that is essentially every violinist’s worst nightmare. While cutting vegetables Sonnenberg sliced the tip of her pinkie finger off. Luckily a surgeon was able to reattach it and instead of lamenting the state of things she simply reworked every piece she was to play for three fingers. She steadfastly refused to miss a performance because she rightly surmised that the audience deserved to have their expectations met. Sonnenberg flies in the face of every preconceived notion of what a classically trained violinist should be. She moves quite a lot when she plays and she actually smiles on stage. It is clear in this film that there are prevailing notions that have become cemented about just how one is to appear when they perform classical music. One gets the impression upon watching this documentary that performers are supposed to remain rigid, stone faced, and essentially static. Sonnenberg simply refuses to play by these codified rules and naturally it has irritated certain traditionalists who decry her approach to the music. It’s uncommon to say the least to witness such craftsmanship at any level. Sonnenberg is truly a master and her performances are akin to watching a high caliber athlete defy the world with astronomical feats that move us in ways we are simply unable to effectively describe. I thought of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps during the Olympics. But of course it’s much more than mere skill that produces a Sonnenberg. It’s a quality that cannot be quantified and perhaps it might be related to the tendency toward certain types of depression. Sonnenberg spent many months locked in a debilitating depression from which she most likely imagined she might not ever recover. Overall, it’s a joy to discover the personality that informs the music. This is a gripping, telling ride with a woman who has carved out a unique niche in the world of classical music. It’s apparent that she possesses tremendous appreciation for the music and that she is deeply humbled by being lucky enough to share her love with audiences world wide. She comes off as entirely fearless when playing but not so much when she’s attempting to live the rest of her life. This is a portrait of a complicated woman who struggles with the intricacies of daily life and is never more comfortable than when she is tearing through Tchaikovsky.
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