A television show hosted on the same platform through which you can purchase an Instant Pot® was the first thing to come to mind to an airport customs officer querying my oboist girlfriend during a recent trip. This is not an isolated incident: I’ve heard similar stories over the years of folks that otherwise have no idea about classical music pointing to how they “love that show on Amazon, though!”
Clearly, Mozart in the Jungle has left an imprint on a sizable section of the culture. But is it for better, or for worse?
A juggernaut series whose fourth season debuts today, the salacious 2006 memoir by Blair Tindall turned Amazon Original Series somewhat surprisingly is often met with open derision by classical musicians. Indeed, while I was researching (see: binging) for this story, a few musicians confessed to me that they actually hide their fandom of the show, lest they come across as uncultured.
(Full disclosure: I play backing clarinet for select pieces in Season 4, and you can also glimpse me as an extra if you look hard enough. That said, neither I nor National Sawdust Log were compensated by Amazon for this coverage.)
Have zero knowledge of the TV show with an Emmy and two Golden Globes to its name, including Best Comedy Series and Best Actor? Here’s a one paragraph catch-up:
Hailey (Lola Kirke) is an oboist trying to find her way in New York City. The show takes place in a fictionalized classical music universe that overlaps with the real one: the city’s orchestra is the New York Symphony, which has retired its aging maestro, Thomas (Malcolm McDowell), in favor of Rodrigo (Gael Garçia Bernal), a brilliant but mercurial young conductor modeled on Gustavo Dudamel. Other important personalities include Gloria (Bernadette Peters), the symphony’s president, who must manage the tempestuous new conductor and keep the organization afloat, and Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), a cellist who’s been around the block a few times and often serves as mentor to Hailey.
While previous seasons have declined to tackle current topics, Season 4 has an uncanny immediacy to it, drawing echoes from conversations swirling around the classical music world. Hailey takes up the baton as her true passion, and enters a conducting competition that she finds dripping with sexism from participants and judges alike. Thomas revives a faded rival ensemble with exciting, outside the box programming, challenging a legacy organization stubbornly mired in the past. Rodrigo and Hailey navigate the treacherous pitfalls of a relationship between a conductor and an instrumentalist. Even the David Geffen Hall renovation debacle is alluded to – perhaps unintentionally – as the aging ceiling of the New York Symphony’s hall caves in on the Pope during a concert.
While it’s tempting to wave off these similarities as opportunistic pandering, the Mozart creative team shows its work. Hailey, in a dream sequence, has a delightful conversation with Isabella Leonarda, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Nannerl Mozart, all women composers whose talents were stifled, overshadowed, or even repurposed as the works of more “worthy” men. The music of composers Paola Prestini, Laura Karpman, and Caroline Shaw features significantly in the season, with the latter two composers actually commissioned by Amazon Studios for the show. National Sawdust, the home of this publication, claims significant screen time as the home for Thomas’s sensational new ensemble.
“We always love to celebrate real places and real people,” Graham said. “The idea that it helps a person or two out is also a great feeling.”
In an email interview, Tindall summarized the merits of the Amazon series: “Many are afraid of classical music… You have to buy an expensive seat, you don’t know when to clap, and there’s some snotty rich person sitting beside you… It’s scary and expensive to go to a concert. With Mozart in the Jungle, you get a funny soap opera about our tribe and the music washes over and moves you without you even realizing it. It’s visceral and satisfying.”
To me, the show’s true strength is in its compelling, relatable characters, who you feel changing over time. In speaking to show runner Will Graham and executive producer Paul Weitz about the threads in the show, I sensed a surprising understanding of the underpinnings that drive artists in an insular classical music world.
“[Rodrigo] has been on a particular path since he was 10…and that presents problems of its own,” Graham said of the show’s fiery and dysfunctional conductor. “But there are also artists who don’t present as straightforward of a path, and I think we really wanted to tell a story about [Hailey] becoming a leader—becoming a significant artist on her own… maybe the thing she’s dreamed of doing since she was two isn’t what she wants anymore.
“What are the implications of that? With all of the expectations that are stacked up on you, what happens when you start to imagine yourself in a different way?”
Where I’m most charmed by Mozart is its ability to laser in on a few quirky details of a classical musician’s lifestyle. Hailey performs Bach once a week for a wealthy Manhattanite’s cat. One of her oboe students insists on vlogging her lesson. Hailey visits her parents’ house, where her middle school and high school music trophies remain prominently on display.
There are some emotional moments, as well. After Rodrigo meets Hailey’s overbearing parents, his lines about their passive-aggressive criticism cut surprisingly deep: “They say words that are nice, but poisonous. They lift you… and then they trap you.” (Who hasn’t felt that way about a parent, teacher, or mentor?) Watching Cynthia grapple with tendinitis and the fragility of her career tugged harder at me than I’m comfortable admitting.
Veterans television viewers will tell you that Mozart is far from a perfect show. Indeed, solutions to conflicts literally fall out of the sky during Season 4, and plot points can feel disjointed or left unresolved. If I was a Professional Critic®, this is where I’d tell you about certain scenes that felt bloated, cameos that felt forced, or plot lines that went unexplained. And from the perspective of a Professional Musician® I would have to tell you about scenes of blatant unrealism – for instance, to complain about the show’s insistence on convincing viewers that classical musicians pull out their instruments to play while everyone crowds around at house parties. (Sorry, had to say it.)
But I don’t care that it’s not perfect, or even that it’s not always “good.” I contend that Mozart in the Jungle is important, because it does something classical music often chooses not to: it gives a damn.
A program about classical music could easily bully musicians as a clown show, portraying us as out of touch elitists. Instead, we’re humans with quirks unique to our field, and with stories worth rooting for. There is an earnestness within the show’s DNA that smudges over the easy-to-criticize bad conducting or sensationalized plot beats.
As a Juilliard graduate and active freelancer, I’m inclined to think that classical musicians often buy into a mythology that their art exists on a plane totally independent of the rest of the world. Perhaps that’s why Mozart elicits knee-jerk eye rolls. It flips the script with a radical assertion: that our highly personal struggles are, in fact, human.
“Mozart in the Jungle is essentially about one question,” Weitz said. “Is there something in music that is not just beautiful, but incorruptible? Exploring all of the flawed and kind people that grapple with this question is the true fabric of the show.”
Mozart in the Jungle Seasons 1-4 are available to stream in full through Amazon Prime Video.
John Hong, a trained clarinetist warmly reviewed as a “deft solo player” by the Chicago Tribune and praised for performing “with aplomb” by The New York Times, is a lifelong devotee of amplifying the narratives behind classical music, whether in print or through performance. Hong has performed for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival and the American Ballet Theatre, and appears in both audio and video during the fourth season of the Emmy-winning TV show Mozart in the Jungle. He serves as Copywriter for National Sawdust, conceived and co-writes the weekly National Sawdust Log newsletter, and holds a Master of Music diploma from The Juilliard School.
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