Speaking in Strings’ Captures Virtuoso’s Intensity, Crises

Movie review

By Kenneth Turan

Times’ Film Critic

Friday, October 29, 1999


“Speaking in Strings” is an extraordinarily intimate, deeply affecting and revelatory documentary on how pain and passion can come together in a creative artist.  Its portrait of controversial virtuoso violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is as vivid and unstoppable as the woman herself: You don’t need to know who she is or even much care about classical music to be gripped, even flabbergasted by what’s on the screen.

That’s because the genuine drama of Salerno-Sonnenberg’s life reaches the level of grand opera and the woman herself is exceptionally intense.  “She doesn’t know how to phone it in,” says a friend, a description that barely does justice to someone whose emotions are all out on the surface, a diva who admits that “feeling more than anyone I know” can be both phenomenal and, frankly, a damn curse.”

Director Paola di Florio has an extensive background producing and directing documentaries for television, but what served her best here was a childhood friendship with the violinist.  Without that kind of personal connection and the trust it engendered, it’s doubtful that the kind of intimacy that is the film’s hallmark would have happened.

More than being intense, Salerno-Sonnenberg is compelled to be completely honest, to forthrightly confront the demons and arises that have accompanied her to a position as one of the world’s premier violinists.  “It’s amazing what you endure,” she says, when you must.”

These crises include a 1984 kitchen accident in which Salerno-Sonenberg cut off the tip of her left little finger (“I thought my life was over as I had known it”) as well as a more recent suicide attempt that was nearly successful.  I don’t want to talk about this,” Salerno-Sonnenberg says at first about that, literally doubled over in psychological pain, but finally, movingly, she does.

The core of everything for Salerno-Sonnenberg is her playing Classical music is like a drug, it’s like food for your soul,” she says of this all-consuming way of life.  Strong-willed and iconoclastic, life’s able to make powerful connections through her music even during moments of terrible personal-crisis.  “In fact when I put a fiddle under my chin I’m able to convey how I feel a lot better than speaking”—hence the film’s title.

The other constant in Salerno-Sonnenberg’s life is her stance as a battler.  Moving to this country from Italy when she was 8, her thick accent (and her old country lunches) made her an outcast at school, “but I had that fighting attitude.”

Salerno-Sonnenberg’s father, now dead, abandoned both her and her mother when his daughter was 3 months old, and her refusal to meet with him when she got older typifies, her loyal, unbending frame of mind.  “What if we became friends?  How would my mother feel?” she asks.  “I didn’t want to hurt my mother’s feelings.”

The turning point in Salerno-Sonnenberg’s career came in 1981 when as a student at Julliard and against her teacher’s advice, she entered the prestigious Walter W. Naumberg International Violin Competition, practiced 12 and 13 hours a day and ended up winning the prize.

From the beginning, Salerno-Sonnenberg’s approach to her art divided people a schism “Speaking in Strings” fully acknowledges.  “I feel possessed sometimes when I play,” she says, and the film’s many clips of her at the violin show her face transported by emotion.  But critics have charged that she puts too much personality into her work, battling the composer and overpowering the music in the process.

In addition to talking to her mother, her friends, fellow musicians and writers like Martin Berheimer, formerly The Times’ classical music critic, “Speaking in Strings” shows Salerno-Sonnenberg in any number of situations, from dinner parties to recording sessions to tending to her aging cat.

Volatile, high-strung but with a fine wise-cracking sense of humor, Salerno-Sonnenberg, unable to be anything but herself, is the opposite of today’s run of stage-managed public personalities.  Your heart can’t help but go out to her because, in this exceptional film, hers goes out to you.