Adelaide filmmaker Scott Hicks’ Highly Strung is really three documentaries in one, weaving a story about the collapse of an artistic collaboration with a broader meditation on the talismanic power of 18th-century Italian string instruments and, ultimately, one passionate woman’s desire to honour music-making.
The film premiered at the opening of the Adelaide Film Festival last night, with many of the key players in this passion-fuelled drama present in the audience at Her Majesty’s.
On the face of it, this beautifully shot documentary is about the Adelaide-based Australian String Quartet – their slowly crumbling relationships with each other, and their almost painful love for the multi-million-dollar collection of Guadagnini instruments bought for them through South Australian Ulrike Klein’s arts organisation.
The project provided the ASQ with the only set of matched instruments by the master Italian craftsman who, alongside the likes of legendary instrument-maker Antonio Stradivari, created the most sought-after, fabled and valuable musical instruments in history.
As the players of the quartet are introduced – mercurial first violinist Kristian Winther, second violinist Ioana Tache, family man violist Stephen King, and reserved cellist Sharon Draper – we know that things aren’t going to go well, because the group had a well-publicised bust-up at the end of 2014.
Winther and Tache are shown in a whirlwind romance – only months after Tache joined the quarter, she and Winther were married.
The documentary then takes us to Italy, to the heart of 18th-century instrument-making in Cremona, where a young Italian luthier, Roberto Cavagnoli, is tasked with making a replica of Draper’s Guadagnini cello, part of Klein’s vision to provide a high-end instrument for young Australian players to use on loan. This thread of the film is one of the most appealing – it is enthralling to watch Cavagnoli’s loving work in choosing the wood from the same forest where Guadagnini and Stradivari sourced their materials, then shaping and planing, slaving over it, until Draper travels to Italy and makes the cello “sing”. Breathtaking.
Meanwhile, back in Adelaide, the electric virtuoso Winther is growing in frustration as his lofty desires for the quartet are apparently thwarted (although we’re never really sure exactly how or why this happens).
The relationships unwind, including with the beautiful Guadagnini instruments, which are intensely personified by the players. The most poignant scenes include Klein recalling Winther and Tache returning the instruments after the ASQ breaks apart (King and Draper have stayed on).
The pain among all players in this tale is palpable as the violins lose their “voice” by being placed in a bank vault for safe keeping.
For Adelaide people, there is the added joy (and slight cringe at the precariousness of it all) of watching King cycling around the Adelaide streets with more than a million bucks worth of instrument strapped to his back, or Draper wheeling her cello to the tram stop on Port Road.
And there are other sub-narratives: for example, a look at the world of high-end instrument trading and investing, including a bizarre and enjoyable glimpse at the “Kardashians” of the string world – New York’s Carpenter family, who dress and play their instruments in equally flamboyant fashion, and who have desires to do unspeakable things like use diamonds to bling up priceless old Stradivari instruments.
In the end, though, the disparate threads are tied in the story of Klein, who came to Australia with nothing and, having made her fortune through the Jurlique skin-care empire, has poured it back into arts, including building a beautiful concert hall on the outskirts of Mt Barker.
I won’t give away the denouement of her storyline, but it is very moving.
Does it all hang together as a narrative? Only just. But, frankly, I can’t imagine which parts should have been left on the editing room floor. They’re all revealing and enjoyable.
Hicks has made something universal out of the stories of these people who, despite their differences, have one thing in common – a yearning for beauty. And you don’t need to be a classical music fan for that to resonate deeply.
Highly Strung will screen again during the Adelaide Film Festival on October 21 at Ulrike Klein’s Ngeringa Cultural Centre in Mt Barker.
More Adelaide Film Festival stories and reviews:
Our Little Sister (review)
Secrets and revenge drive The Dressmaker (review)
Amanda Duthie’s Film Festival picks
When Romeo met Romeo: Remembering the Man
Michelle’s Story of resilience
Star-studded line-up for Adelaide Film Festival
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