“It’s amazing what you can endure when you must.”

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg speaks those words in Speaking in Strings, a documentary that traces her rise to fame through interviews, concert footage, and clips from various television appearances. While the quotation is used to describe Salerno-Sonnenberg’s life, I found it doubly meaningful as enduring this film was a trial in itself.

Directed by childhood friend Paola di Florio, Speaking in Strings is an entirely derivative documentary, relying on the old talking heads and voice-over narration and it ultimately fails to provide the viewer a complete picture of Salerno-Sonnenberg as either artist or personality.  Approaching the film completely unaware of Salerno-Sonnenberg’s history or reputation, I came away feeling as though I had experienced far too much of her abrasive personality without any real insight into what had formed it and far too little of her music to be able to make a judgment with regard to her talent.

Salerno-Sonnenberg claims that music "saved" her life, but it seems as though it may have been what helped to ruin her to begin with. From very early on, the music was her life and quickly became all there was. Following an intense practice and performance schedule from the beginning, all of the tragedies explored in the film seem to be directly related to her music, from the accidental severance of a fingertip to the highly sensationalized suicide attempt, alluded to be the result of a failed romance, no doubt doomed by Salerno-Sonnenberg’s imbalance (or inability to distinguish) between work and life. This brings us to the most frustrating aspect of Speaking in Strings; for a documentary created by a close friend, the viewer only receives vague hints regarding unsuccessful relationships and breakdowns. We’re treated to heartbreaking scenes of the aftermath of such tragedies, but without the proper context the viewer is not easily involved. Any possible understanding of the subject of this documentary is quickly overcome by frustration and, ultimately, disinterest.

Salerno-Sonnenberg is undoubtedly a gifted and original artist. Again, though, little time is spent exploring her controversial performance style. Her technique and stage presence seem to estrange as many potential fans as they appeal to. Critic Martin Bernheimer, apparently not a fan, plainly states this point, and while I waited for di Florio to provide a rebuttal witness, none ever appeared.

The little time that Speaking in Strings spends on Salerno-Sonnenberg’s actual music is absolutely compelling. Entirely ignorant of the arrangement of classical music, I was nonetheless engrossed with her insights, such as those regarding Sibelius' use of the G-string in his D Minor Violin Concerto. It’s a pity there aren’t more of these moments in Speaking in Strings, a film that ultimately pushes the viewer away from a subject that could have easily been absolutely fascinating.

Mark A. Nichols





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