Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is no shrinking violet. When she’s on the stage, you can’t ignore her, and not only because of her slash-and-burn virtuosity. She can’t keep still, her face distorted in agony and ecstasy as she plumbs the nether regions of this or that concerto. Her restless physicality is both distracting and magnetic—a combination that has won her friends and enemies. Offstage, she hunts alligators and sharks in cowboy boots with a cigarette dangling from her lips. In spite of her exotic double-decker name, she’s as American as apple pie. No question about it: she’s the Mike Tyson of the Stradivarius.
This 39-year-old tomboy has redefined the “femininity” of violin playing—she’s not afraid to make her instrument sound harsh when she feels the music calls for it—and now, fittingly, she’s the subject of a documentary with feminist undercurrents. Speaking in Strings is directed by Paola di Florio, and most members of the production team are women too. One of Salerno-Sonnenberg’s female cronies says, “The classical music business is run by a certain clique of men,” but the film goes on to show that many women are involved—at least in Nadja’s circle—including record producers, recording engineers, publicists, and conductors.
The movie, a clumsy labor of love with unforgivable lapses—key footage is missing, and it fails to show why Salerno-Sonnenberg’s controversial interpretations are so original and valid—sometimes rises to become a compelling portrait of a neurotic personality. Sure, she’s tough as nails, but she’s a total mess. Although she claims that music “saved” her life, what we actually see is how it ruined her, an overriding obsession wedded to a merciless schedule. Things went berserk: she accidentally cut off the tip of her pinkie (while cooking; it was sewn back). She later tried to commit suicide—triggered (literally) by a failed romance.
Or so the film obliquely suggests. For a movie fashioned in the let-it-all-hang-out confessional mode, it’s odd that it pussyfoots around a rather obvious point. Salerno-Sonnenberg, who has a fuck-off attitude, doesn’t have to be the Ellen DeGeneres of classical music, but she could at least fess up. This is no mystery: just cherchez la femme.