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Guadagnini, Stradivari - not the only highly strung
To be "highly strung" (adj) is to be - tense and easily upset, excitable, nervous………. Highly Strung is also the title of Scott Hicks (Shine) new documentary. In his own words, Hicks describes his film as "a story of passion, of obsession and possession. And then there's the music".
The semi participatory, somewhat observational documentary strings together the story of two violins, a voila and a cello, all crafted by the luthier Guadagnini which are on loan to the Australian String Quartet. These instruments are the only set of matched Guadagninis whose highly strung voices now play together in quartet harmony. Courtesy of the patronage of Ulrike Klein, who describes herself as the "grandmother of the cosmetic empire Jurlique", her foundation purchased the precious masterpieces for over five million dollars. Despite that patronage being more than initially anticipated, she does go further with her support of the arts and commissions a replica of the Guadagnini Cello for young Australians to have an opportunity to play the newly handcrafted piece.
The documentary sets out to ponder the lives of these and other such classically and beautifully stringed instruments such as those crafted by Antonio Stradivari. "Highly Strung" explores the patronal lives of these masterpieces as they are loaned to elite musicians, some that are caged in museums, others that are treated as tradable commodities like great works of art often are.
The documentary starts filming the Australian String Quartet as Kristian Winther (first violin) and Stephen King (viola) welcome the two newly recruited ASQ members - Sharon Draper (cello) and Ioana Tache (second violin). Each member spends time telling Hicks' camera how they see their musical role in the string quartet. Ironically, it soon becomes apparent their narratives on their musical role does not differ greatly from role in the documentary. The film has several sub narratives that entangle and are left twisted by fates more ironic than could be anticipated by Hicks when he commenced the documentary. Kristian and Ioana fall in love almost on sight, this is spontaneously followed by their wedding. Post that burst of enthusiasm by Ioana her independent communication seems to cease - for if her Kristian isn't using the word "I", he is using the word "we". But then, given his Kristian's own perception and of his role as first violin, her disappearance from the role of second violin to the role of second fiddle was foretold.
But back to the instruments – despite the million dollar value of these precious instruments; Sharon Draper Guadagnini Cello gets to ASQ performances via public transport, Stephen King rides his bike with the Guadagnini Viola strapped to his back making fatal jokes in regards to both of both their welfare in relation to possible openings of car doors. Maybe, that patronise freedom a classically Australian way, still I am sure the member of the audience who gasped was from the Insurance Company. Guadagnini crafted those violins and the very adventurous viola and cello somewhere between 1743, 1748 and 1786. Guadagnini himself lived off patronage, as did the composers who wrote the compositions played by the String Quartets of that day; they being the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.
The documentary spends time in Cremana where Guadagnini and Stradivari crafted their stringed instruments and where today's Roberto Cavagnoli (luthier) is crafting that replicator cello for Klein. From Cavagnoli's choosing of the wood from the forest, to his carving out to cello's completion, it is quite obvious the film's real romantic love affair belongs to the two of them; the master craftsperson and his instrument. But the footage does beg the question, is modern day violin making and its possible progress being held back by melancholy for the classical?
And its about then is when the Carpenters make entrance. They are self described as the "Kardashians of the string world" and obviously think that is a good thing to prescribe to. But they do seem that they are seemingly as intoxicated by opulence as their reality counterparts, perhaps just more classically cuss. These three ambitious Carpenter siblings were recently described in The New Yorker "as having an air of fictional implausibility" and I think writer Rebecca Mead was being nice. The Carpenters' Stradivarius trade and they boast that a Stradivari violin is a divestment that can solve tax puzzles and will return investment at a rate of 8-12% a year. Antonio Stradivari handcrafted violins, cellos, lutes, mandolins and harps. Antonio did generate his own wealth during his lifetime and it is estimated he made over 1100 violins, around 650 remaining (including one recently sold for about $3.5m (US), one of its previous owners said to be Napoleon Bonaparte).
But whether it be Stradivarius or a Guadagnini violin, do these treasured instruments deserve their reputation for performance, or is their performance more about reputation? Hick's notes in his documentary that Claudia Fritz, a French Professor of Acoustics published a study that stated under strict test conditions violinists themselves could not tell whether they were playing on a Stradivarius or on a modern instrument.
Meanwhile back at the ASQ, Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache have gone to the Board and issued the ultimatum – it's either us or Stephen King and Sharon Draper. As many Boards would do in the case of an ultimatum they responded to that circumstance by saying - it's them then. Kristian and Ioano do ….. despite having performances left to give, hand back their Guadagnini violins. Despite the obvious gossip opportunity and Hicks' documentary frustrations - King and Draper are not saying much about what is left unsaid. Kristian is saying a lot but not much of it is worth being said. Ioana writes an email which is read out loud but it's unclear whom the words apply to – but it was the most words shared with the audience post her nuptials. But one thing is clear, the Guadagnini Violins voices are rendered silenced with the closing of a Bank Vault door.