PAGE 08: Highly Strung

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HIGHLY STRUNG

By Dr. Luis Dias 

When I scanned the list of films announced in the World Panorama section at this year’s International Film Festival of India, The Audition / Das Vorspiel (2019) a German-language film directed by Ina Weise leapt off the page calling my attention. This was for several reasons. 

For one, I was born in Berlin (then West Berlin, West Germany) over half-a-century ago, and German is the first language I spoke, so I’m drawn for nostalgic reasons. For another, I love the violin with a passion and as an adolescent, had grand dreams of making it my profession, but by then my family was back here in Goa and the opportunities and options were not so clear as they might have been if I were that age today in a digitally-connected world. So I took up medicine instead and although I’ve enjoyed that very much, I still look wistfully over my shoulder asking myself “What if?” Would I, could I have made the cut? Wouldacouldashoulda, as the Americans say.

Reason #3: After over two decades in medicine in India and the UK, I’ve now devoted my life to music education, wanting to give India’s disadvantaged children the opportunities I would love to have had when I was their age. This is why I founded the Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) a little over a decade ago. So I can relate to being a pedagogue myself.

In The Audition, Anna (Nina Hoss) is a no-nonsense internally insecure violin-teacher at a German high school that focuses on music education. She is married to Philippe, a French luthier (maker of violins and other bowed stringed instruments, and played by Simon Abkarian).  They have a ten-year-old son Jonas (Serafin Mishiev), who also studies the violin but Anna supports a slightly older student of hers, Alexander (Ilja Monti) in whom she sees the glimmer of a diamond in the rough, although her fellow pedagogues don’t share her view.

The film shows us how fragile the world of music-making is, in equal parts a matter of technique, practice but perhaps crucially, a mind-game.

There are so many little nuances that resonate with me, for example, the scene where Anna trims Alexander’s fingernails at one of his violin sessions. As music-teachers, we often have to do this to students ourselves. In fact, there’s a nail-clipper in the drawer of our office just for this purpose. Long fingernails don’t allow for good finger position on the instrument fingerboard. You can always tell a serious violinist (or violist) by the presence or absence of long fingernails; that and the tell-tale dark patch under the chin where it rests on the violin.

Reason #4 why I found this film intriguing: The actor playing Alexander, the gifted student, is actually a real-life violinist, already a winner of many competition prizes. So he’s not faking it on the instrument, not synching finger and bow with some canned soundtrack. Ilja Monti is the real Monty, if you’ll pardon the pun! So prepare to hear him play some serious violin repertoire in the film.

This brings me to Reason #5. My column is called ‘The Score’, and the score in this film is not just one composer, but all of my pin-up heroes: in chronological order, Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Marie Leclair, Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach (son of JS Bach), Ignace Pleyel, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Niccolò Paganini, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Edouard Lalo, Johannes Brahms, Jean-Baptist Clément, Max Bruch, Jacques Féréol Mazas. A smorgasbord of music. In these troubled times, when live concerts are foreseeably out of the question, here is the next best thing, disguised as a film, with an engrossing plot to go with it. 

In a Q&A session, when The Audition was first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, Weise was asked how she selected the music. Being a violinist herself, this was the music she was familiar with and had personal experience with and therefore, had special meaning for her.

So Reason #6 (or, should I just stop counting?). I ‘know’ all the music, in the sense that I’ve heard the works before. I’ve not got up to the technical level of Paganini Caprices, but I’m intimately familiar with the solo violin music (three sonatas and three partitas) of Johann Sebastian Bach, and, in fact, won a violin competition way back in the 1980s playing the first movement Adagio from his violin sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001, which is in the film. It features the Presto, another movement from the sonata that I’ve also played, which as its name suggests is played at a pretty brisk pace.

Reason#7: Nina Hoss who plays Anna had to learn violin just for the film, and, apparently, does a wonderful job. So if you’re an adult beginner, you have your role model! If you love western classical music, certainly if you also play a musical instrument, this is the film for you.

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