Highly Strung

May 19, 2016
Scott Hicks director of 'Highly Strung'.
Photograph: Adelaide Film Festival
Scott Hicks director of 'Highly Strung'. Photograph: Adelaide Film Festival

In the rarefied world of classical music the blood-letting is not so obvious, but it can still get nasty, as shown by Scott Hicks’s documentary, Highly Strung.

This film has at least four different narratives that don’t always interact smoothly. The first is a portrait of the Australian String Quartet, beginning in late 2013, when first violin, Kristian Winther and viola player, Stephen King are joined by second violin, Iona Tache, and cellist, Sharon Draper. The second celebrates the dedication of philanthropist, Ulrike Klein, who made her money with Jurlique cosmetics, and is now spending it to support classical music in South Australia. The third looks at Adelaide’s acquisition of four 18th century instruments by master luthier, Guadagnini, and the painstaking efforts of a contemporary instrument-maker, Roberto Cavagnoli, to make an exact copy of the cello. Lastly, there is a freewheeling glimpse of the Carpenter family of New York, accomplished musicians who double as sales representatives for multi-million dollar instruments.

Leaping back and forth from New York to Adelaide to Cremona becomes slightly confusing, as Hicks can’t seem to decide what sort of film he wants to make. From interviews with members of the ASQ and famous musicians such as Joshua Bell, we learn a lot about the way a player relates to his or her instrument; the processes by which vintage instruments are bought and sold, and the hidden dynamics of a quartet. These discussions alone are worth the price of admission.

Suddenly a more dramatic story emerges as a rift develops in the ASQ. Winther and Tache had married only weeks after the new line-up was confirmed, and the two were now inseparable. King and Draper have their own lives outside the group, but for the violinists their devotion to the music is all-consuming, and they appear to have questioned their colleagues’ commitment.

Despite Hicks’s constant probing we never get a clear explanation for the developing tensions, which seem to take King and Draper by surprise. The interviewees are defensive, as if still trying to cope with the realisation everything has fallen to pieces. Winther is the exception, as his obvious passion for music-making gradually transforms into arrogance and entitlement. When he keeps assuring us he has no regrets, this comes across as sheer insensitivity. By comparison, King and Draper are beacons of normality.

Cut to Ulrike Klein agonising over the turmoil within the quartet. Cut to Roberto, shaving a bit more wood off his cello. Cut to the Carpenters, buying clothes in an upmarket boutique, selling a Stradivarius to a hedge fund manager, and boasting about a gig they played in which the combined value of the instruments was US$120 million. Adelaide seems a long way from New York when Hicks flashes a note on screen informing us that a quartet member’s base salary is $85,000.

It is the drama of the meltdown within the quartet that ultimately sustains this complex feature, which provided Hicks with enough material for two or three films. He has given himself a structural problem by trying to hang on to everything when it might have been wise to make one documentary about the ASQ and a more general one about the classical music industry. Film funding must have played a part in the decision to stuff so much diverse material into one package.

The crammed, awkward structure means that Hicks has little room for actual performances, or to indulge his eye for detail, which is one of his strengths as a director. When the camera pans over Kristian and Iona’s collection of multi-coloured sneakers one glimpses the teenage immaturity within these accomplished violinists. In the most oblique fashion Hicks suggests that being a musical prodigy doesn’t absolve one from acting like an adult.

Highly Strung
Written & directed by Scott Hicks
Starring the Australian String Quartet, the Carpenter Family, Ulrike Klein
Australia, rated M, 90 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21st May, 2016.