Speaking In Strings

(Documentary) A CounterPoint Films presentation. Produced by Paola di Florio and Lilibet Foster.
Directed by Paola di Florio.

“Speaking in Strings” is a riveting portrait of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, a first-rank classical
violinist whose highly emotive style of performance invites both kudos and controversy. Her
offstage life has been marked by tumult as well, lending this docu considerable dramatic heft.
Theatrical dates are a possibility, though given film’s subject matter and video lensing
(transferred to 35mm for its Sundance screening), broadcast slots look the most natural outlet.

Pic is framed by sequences of an exhilarated Salerno-Sonnenberg taking a hot-air balloon ride — one
symbolic of her recovery from a crisis that occurred a year earlier. Born to a musical family in Italy
and abandoned by her baritone-singer father at 3 months, she was taken to New York at age 8, but had
a tough time adjusting. Her evident talent led to studies at Juilliard; when she won a major violin
competition in 1982, a professional debut followed while Nadja was still in her teens.

The musician immediately divided critics: While some hailed the arrival of a genius, others
considered her playing style so mannered and over-the-top that it betrayed the composers’ intentions.
Given a rather working-class New Yawker personality, she struck many in the hidebound classical
world as lacking decorum.

Though insight into her personal life is limited here, docu conveys the difficulty Salerno-Sonnenberg
has experienced finding happiness outside performing. (Small wonder she says she’s by nature
attracted to “tortuously romantic” music.)

Depressive periods, and a career-endangering finger wound, presaged a barely unsuccessful suicide
attempt. Things seem to be going better since. But as Salerno-Sonnenberg notes — without a trace of
self-pity or melodrama — she “can’t help but feel more than anyone else I know. … Sometimes it’s a
damned curse.”

Helmer Paola di Florio (a childhood friend of Nadja’s) weaves TV interviews, family home movies,
concert and rehearsal performances, and commentary from critics, colleagues and family alongside
verite footage of the subject at work or leisure. She’s often humorous and engaging (at one point we
find out that Nadja’s a “Star Trek” fanatic). But what “Speaking in Strings” captures most potently is
the “on the brink” quality of the artistic temperament in extremis.

Editing packs a lot into short running time, though pic never feels rushed. Sound recording
(particularly in musical segs) is excellent. Though competently shot, the film will definitely look
better on the small screen than in its viddish 35 transfer.

Composers rep’d in performance excerpts include Sibelius, Ravel, Shostakovich and an appealing new
work by Salerno-Sonnenberg’s peer and friend Mats Lindstrom.

Camera (color, vid-to-35mm), Peter Rader; editor, Ellen Goldwasser; original music, Karen Childs;
sound, di Florio; associate producers, Cindy Rosenberg, Julie Du Brow, Elizabeth Rodgers; additional
editing, Arthur Klein; additional camera, David Safian. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival
(competing), Jan. 28, 1999. Running time: 73 MIN.