Highly Strung rather haphazardly explores a fascinating rarefied world of classical string instruments and the conflicts and paradoxes within.
The initial focus of this new doco from Shine director Scott Hicks is the Australian String Quartet (ASQ), comprising Adelaide-based virtuoso classical musicians given the dream opportunity of playing rare matching instruments crafted by Guadagnini, an 18th century Italian master luthier ranked with Stradivarius. There is excitement, exhilaration and moments of sublime musical unity as the quartet rehearse with the superb old instruments. However, as they work towards a series of public concerts, personal and professional cracks start to appear, leading to ego clashes, division and artistic conflict.
Meanwhile, Hicks takes the film off on other tangents. He follows the progress of a contemporary Italian luthier painstakingly replicating the Guadagnini cello featuring in the ASQ (there’s a wonderful scene in which we witness the birthing of the instrument as it is played for the first time – see still shot above). High art meets the corporate world in New York, where a glamorous team of musicians-cum-brokers, supported by a top hedge fund manager, pitch multi-million dollar Stradivarius and Guadagnini instruments to wealthy collector-investors seeking to profit from capital appreciation over time.
Questions arise as to the ethics of such ventures. Should rare instruments be traded as mere commodities? Does confining a precious instrument to a glass case preserve it, or rob it of life? If the latter, where does that leave museums?
There is a brief mention of a blindfold research experiment with the startling and disconcerting finding that musicians generally rate finely crafted modern instruments over those of the Italian masters!
The most moving scene of the film comes towards its end, when the ASQ cellist, Sharon Draper, plays a self-composed solo cello piece at an indigenous-led outdoors ceremony marking the opening of the Ngeringa Cultural Centre in South Australia’s Mount Lofty Ranges. To a beautiful natural backdrop, she evokes the sounds of the bush and the didgeridoo en route to a resolution featuring western harmonies. It’s hair-raising stuff, musically imaginative and symbolically profound.
The tangential excursions of the film compromise its cohesion, and the energy sags at times, but if Hicks has erred by leaving in too much, it is understandable. While his doco may have benefited from a clearer focus and some judicious editing, so much of the content is fascinating that cutting it back would have been difficult. Better to sacrifice form than content (although granted, best not to sacrifice either).
If you’re at all interested in the mystique, romance and contemporary realities surrounding masterfully crafted 18th century stringed instruments, and the people who bring them to life (or reduce them to investment vehicles), you won’t want to miss this doco, regardless of its flaws.
Movie website: http://www.sharmillfilms.com.au/?p=4715
Highly Strung features: Kristian Winther, Ioana Tache, Stephen King, Sharon Draper, Ulrike Klein
Writer/Director: Scott Hicks
Australian release date: Thu 19 May (at Cinema Paradiso in Perth)
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