Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mozart in the Jungle: New Series on Amazon Prime

Mozart in the Jungle

Mozart in the Jungle is a new series on Amazon Prime about sex, drugs, and classical music. It's based on a book with the same name by Blair Tindall, who played oboe with the New York Philharmonic. The show is a little racy--it depicts the excitement and drama that goes on behind the scenes of the classical music world from the perspective of a young oboist struggling to make it in New York. It captures the tension between tradition and innovation, as well as making money versus making great art. But how realistic is its portrayal of the lives of classical musicians? Is this a show that musicians should watch? 

(minor spoilers follow)

It certainly gets some things right. The opening scene shows one of the main characters, Hailey, teaching a private lesson to a fourteen-year-old boy who's more interested in staring at his pretty teacher than learning the oboe. She asks him to please try to practice before his big performance (been there!). Later on, we see Hailey attend a performance of the New York Symphony (clearly a stand-in for the New York Philharmonic), where there's plenty of tension between outgoing conductor Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) and brilliant young newcomer Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal). Rodrigo seems to be a reference to Gustavo Dudamel, the hot new Latin American conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic. Bernal plays him as a genius, but also arrogant and pretentious, while McDowell's Thomas seethes with jealousy and resentment. These bits of backstage intrigue are some of the most enjoyable parts of the show, featuring some fantastic acting from McDowell, Bernal, and Bernadette Peters, who plays the waspish chair of the orchestra's board of directors. Best line in the pilot--"Put that champagne down, Sargent Pepper!" 

After the glamorous classical concert, Hailey and one of the cellists from the symphony hustle downtown to play in the pit of a hilariously bad Broadway show. Hailey hits it off with the beautiful cellist, Cynthia, who's played by Saffron Burrows. Their conversation gets pretty explicit, with Cynthia coming off like the classical music version of Sex in the City's Samantha. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Cynthia's jaded but sophisticated character, and the dynamic between her as a seen-it-all cynic and Hailey as a ingénue felt compelling.

After her drink with Cynthia, Hailey goes home to find a wild party in progress at her apartment. At this point, however, the show veered away from realistic depictions of classical musicians. Don't get me wrong, I've certainly known musicians who party and drink, but classical music takes fine motor skills, so having a classical music drinking contest seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Even more so when you play an instrument you have to blow into, which basically means soaking your reeds and the inside of your oboe with liquor.

Even more unrealistic? Hailey getting a text message from Cynthia about "surprise" auditions that Rodrigo is having for woodwinds. Seriously, no major orchestra has ever had surprise auditions. People spend months preparing for those. I'm guessing that part was added in for extra drama--maybe the producers didn't think that showing months of repetitive practicing for one audition sounded exciting.

Overall, I enjoyed the show enough to look past some of its creative license in depicting musician's real lives (after all, how realistic are cop dramas or law shows?). I thought the acting was excellent, and the backstage drama so interesting it might interest more people in classical music. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the season soon. If you're interested in seeing how Hollywood imagines classical musicians, you should check it out too.


  1. However, surprise-audition-wise: I've heard from the "winner"s of some pretty informal ones, that consisted of playing chamber music with the music director, with no one else present, both in major orchestras in NY and Chicago, in the 40's and the 90's.

  2. Crazy. I guess I can't imagine anyone doing that now.