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Classical musicians get down and dirty in 'Mozart in the Jungle'

Mozart in the Jungle is best perceived as a fantasy exposé. Amazon Prime's 10-episode streaming series, released all at once on Dec. 23, pretends to tell an awful truth: that when symphony orchestra musicians finish playing some of the most heavenly music ever written, they're a bunch of druggy, irresponsible, back-biting nightmares.

What are you doing after the show? (From left) Malcolm McDowell, Bernadette Peters, and Gael Garcia Bernal in the series "Mozart in the Jungle," which purports to show the down-and-dirty secrets of classical musicians.
What are you doing after the show? (From left) Malcolm McDowell, Bernadette Peters, and Gael Garcia Bernal in the series "Mozart in the Jungle," which purports to show the down-and-dirty secrets of classical musicians.Read more

Mozart in the Jungle is best perceived as a fantasy exposé.

Amazon Prime's 10-episode streaming series, released all at once on Dec. 23, pretends to tell an awful truth: that when symphony orchestra musicians finish playing some of the most heavenly music ever written, they're a bunch of druggy, irresponsible, back-biting nightmares.

Well, maybe the back-biting part makes sense to those of us who work pretty close to the real thing. But should we classical types be scandalized that a cellist walks out of the labor-union kvetch session and retreats to the bathroom, where she shoots up . . . something? Should we be nonplussed that a hot young conductor, clearly based on Gustavo Dudamel, brings his parrot to rehearsal?

No, we should be amused at the fun-house warpage in this fictitious (and often entertaining) show. Rest assured that this is probably the only way a symphony orchestra will be dramatized in a mainstream forum - assuming that anybody in the classical community besides me is downloading the episodes.

I've been unable to find anyone else, in either Philadelphia or New York City, who has seen anything but the widely circulated pilot segment of Mozart in the Jungle. Everybody knows about it, but musicians couldn't be less curious. Even opera star Deborah Voigt, whose racy forthcoming autobiography Call Me Debbie (Harper Collins) deals extensively with addiction, isn't monitoring the competition.

At its core, Mozart in the Jungle, based on the 2006 book by oboist Blair Tindall, knows the world it portrays. But that core has been buried under at least a few rewrites. No doubt many real-life musicians leave orchestra union meetings wanting to shoot up heroin, but actually doing it isn't likely - the treadmill of weekly concerts requires a consistent level of functionality. Unlike opera singers (who rarely perform every day), symphony musicians don't have time to nod out between performances.

I've met some functional alcoholics among string players. Surely, some players take painkillers to deal with various injuries. But even something as semi-legal as pot isn't likely to figure into orchestras. Precision ensemble playing is their daily bread. Wind players who care about their future would compromise lung capacity by smoking anything.

Only the actors, drawn heavily from New York theater circles, keep the Mozart in the Jungle characters from seeming clueless. Watching Lola Kirke (in the central role of a young oboist) navigate New York is such fun that the series is at its best when portraying what it is to be young in the city. Saffron Burrows, who plays Cynthia the cellist, handles herself with such grace and authority that you notice the sloppy writing only after the fact.

Example: Why would a well-paid symphonic musician moonlight in a Broadway show? Isn't scheduling a problem? If she needs the money, why does she drop a $50 tip at a restaurant?

Most elements of Mozart have some sort of precedent, if remote. The outgoing senior conductor (Malcolm McDowell) hangs around his own orchestra after stepping down. Has anybody done that since Eugene Ormandy's day? No, they're touring the Far East, where age is venerated - and well-paid.

On the other hand, when the dashing incoming conductor played by Gael Garcia Bernal nixes a poster of himself that says "Listen to the Hair," you're reminded of ad campaigns that were nearly as silly.

Crazy rehearsal techniques such as having the orchestra mime music without instruments aren't that far from some of the stuff Bobby McFerrin is known to try. Though one corny scene has the conductor arguing with Mozart in his mind, the serious, real-life Trevor Pinnock admits to having phone chats with Mendelssohn (usually when the composer is annoyed). Bringing a parrot to rehearsal is a new one on me, but anything will pass for an emotional-support animal these days.

Though the board president and orchestra CEO are conflated into a single character, Bernadette Peters is more believable than anybody else as she goes from one damage-control situation to another, keeps everybody from freaking out and, in private, freaks out herself.

What's maddening is that so many gaffes could have been avoided. No conductor would, at the last minute, substitute Berlioz's five-minute Rakoczy March for Mahler's gargantuan 80-minute Symphony No. 8. Obviously, some script doctor barely knew what a classical concert is. And any conductor who has to haul his orchestra out to an empty lot to get it loose enough to play a fiery 1812 Overture, as does the Dudamel surrogate, is seriously incompetent.

Do you argue that TV characters have to be exaggerated to hold the screen? Well, their Philadelphia Orchestra counterparts are hardly boring. Violinist Davyd Booth has 80 tattoos, including his "Michelangelo special" - the fingers of God and Adam on his right foot. Violinist Phil Kates never met an earthquake zone that he didn't try to cheer up with an impromptu recital. And what about the orchestra's bungee jumping contingent led, during a recent tour stop in Macau, by tuba player Carol Jantsch?

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin isn't even fazed by it all: "Who knows what they do in Philadelphia before they come to a concert?"

Put that in a mini-series. But would anybody believe it?

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