September 17, 1999


FILM REVIEW; Fiery Violinist Living an Operatic Life

Not long after the phenomenal Italian-born violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg moved to the United States at the age of 8, she attended a class whose students were asked to play show and tell by talking about their favorite thing in the world. But when this brilliant young musician presented a recording of the Brahms violin concerto to the class, she was met with derisive laughter. She was so upset, she recalls in Paola di Florio’s sympathetic documentary portrait, ”Speaking in Strings,” that she angrily cursed her classmates and ran from the room in tears.

This humiliating childhood experience speaks volumes about the problems of being a classical musician in a pop universe. But Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s aggressive response to her peers’ scorn was also an indication of the bluntly feisty personality behind her extravagantly romantic style. When performing a piece like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg becomes carried away and lays herself bare. And her fiery emotionality, much of which derives from her childhood passion for opera, has not been greeted with unanimous critical approval.

While the film remembers Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s teen-age celebrity — she once joked with Johnny Carson and had her own segment on ”60 Minutes” — it devotes the bulk of its energy to her problems as an adult. The personal price of being a classical superstar, the film suggests, is high, especially for a woman.  Wasn’t it Janis Joplin who once described the agony of ending up alone in a motel room at the end of the night after having ecstatically bonded with an audience?  Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg seems to have suffered similar frustrations after pouring out her heart and soul on the stage.

In one scene she is shown being reassured by a psychic that yes, she will one day have a child. Earlier in the film she begins to talk about a recently broken relationship but stops herself when she begins to weep. In fact, the movie draws a curtain over her intimate personal life. We meet no lovers, past or present, only admiring, loyally protective friends, associates and family members.

Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s serious troubles began five years ago when she cut off the tip of her left little finger while slicing onions. The accident would have ended the career of a less determined performer. Until she regained the use of that finger, she risked permanently injuring her hand by refingering her repertory and continuing her concert schedule.

Exhausted and depressed, she suffered what she calls an ”existential crisis” and attempted suicide. But luck was on her side. When she pulled the trigger, the gun she held to her head clicked without firing. After that, she recalls, she had to learn to embrace life ”a minute at a time.” She has since discovered that happiness is something that ”takes guts.”

For all the personal turmoil it presents, the woman who emerges from ”Speaking in Strings,” which opens today at Cinema Village, is a likable down-to-earth person who seems to know herself very well.  If it takes courage to be happy, the movie suggests, it may take even more courage to live out a larger-than-life destiny whose precipitous ups and downs are a measure of the talent being served.


Directed by Paola di Florio; director of photography, Peter Rader; edited by Ellen Goldwater; original score by Karen Childs; produced by Ms. di Florio and Lilibet Foster; released by Seventh Art Releasing. At the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 73 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

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