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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg - documentary

I watched the movie "Speaking in Strings." It is a 1999 documentary about the Italian-American violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. It is also a film about the classical music industry, how only a tiny fraction of one percent of musicians ever attain major success or fame at all, and a biography of a very interesting, non-conformist musician - Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg.

The movie chronicles her rapid assent to fame: from a Juilliard student of Dorothy DeLay winning the 1981 Naumburg competition, to a burned-out and depressed suicidal wreck (don't worry, the movie doesn't end on a down note). Sonnenberg, who speaks with a robust NY accent, is a Rosy O'Donnell type. She plays with: sharp knives (which resulted one Christmas day in her cutting off the tip of her left pinkie), and hand guns (which were initially recommend to her by a friend for defense against a psychotic fan who was stalking her). Nadja smokes Camel cigarettes like there is no tomorrow. Not surprisingly, she takes musical chances.

The film is packed with video of not only her performances as soloist with orchestras from all around the world, but with wild and unpolished first-rehearsals with friends and recording sessions. There is interesting footage of her with conductors Gunther Schuller, Marion Alsap (then Colorado Symphony, now music director of Baltimore), and others. Watching her as a performer is unnerving. She can't stand still and the contortions of her face are psychologically disturbing.

The high-point of the film for me is footage of a riveting performance she gave of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto #1 at Carnegie Hall just two weeks after she tried to shoot herself in the head with a pistol due to severe depression. The body language says it all. The intense, un-earthly sounds coming out of her violin (harmonics near the opening) and the way in which her body and instrument appeared to be possessed is perhaps unlike anything I have ever experienced in a musical performance before. I've seen people in various altered states (e.g. religious fervor), but it is not everyday that a musician with the unbelievable technical prowess of Sonnenberg flies loose on the concert stage and creates a connection with the supernatural.

Rent the movie from NetFlix or from your local video store. You can check out her official website too...

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