Speaking In Strings

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Speaking In Strings

Concert violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is a controversial figure in classical music, held by some in almost as much contempt as Andrea Bocelli or David Helfgott. Audiences flock to her passionate, physically expressive performances, while influential critics protest that her playing is more about showing off than finding the best instrumental voice to match the composer's vision. The Academy Award-nominated documentary Speaking In Strings was directed by Salerno-Sonnenberg's childhood friend Paola di Florio, and it serves as a sort of apologia for the musician's style and personality. Mixing sketchy biographical background, performance footage, and soul-baring interviews, di Florio offers justification for her subject's headstrong approach to life and art. The picture centers on Salerno-Sonnenberg's own contention that the only way she can really express her feelings is through music. Deprived of a violin and a bow, she becomes moody, suffused with rage and depression. She even distrusts her moments of contentment, unless she has a circle of friends to share and validate them. On film, Salerno-Sonnenberg is remarkably forthright about her fear of loneliness and about a recent suicide attempt, and her mordant wit and strong opinions make her fascinating to watch. But di Florio under-explains what made her who she is. The filmmaker joins the ranks of contemporary documentarians who disdain decadent accessories like voiceover narration or date stamps, instead leaving her audience at sea about the timeline of Salerno-Sonnenberg's life. The film has an emotional structure rather than a linear one, with low points following high points regardless of when either actually happened. Speaking In Strings is mainly designed to explicate why Salerno-Sonnenberg appeals to music lovers who crave charisma as much as sophistication. A litany of praise from the artist's friends and colleagues all reaches the conclusion that, for Salerno-Sonnenberg, assuaging her detractors by altering her style would be a crippling move. Given how her connection with audiences soothes her wounded psyche, the defense makes sense. It's plausible that her artistry is bound up in her torment, transcending the strictures of classical-music mores and making her performances into art of a different kind.

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