Last month, Amazon posted the entire first season — 10 episodes — of a new series about classical music, “Mozart in the Jungle.” The series, which stars such luminaries as Bernadette Peters, Malcolm McDowell and Gael García Bernal, is nominally based on the book with the same title by Blair Tindall, an oboist, that rocked the easily scandalized classical-music world when it came out in 2005. All the book actually revealed was that classical musicians, in the 1980s, had sex and did drugs, much like people in other fields, but classical music is supposed to exist in some higher realm, at least to those who love it. (How soon they forget Franz Liszt.)
Tindall did, however, spend a lot of time doing research to back up her assertions that the classical-music field is not all it’s cracked up to be and to present a no-holds-barred portrayal of the realities of that world. The Amazon series is another matter altogether. As I mentioned in a review last month, it seizes on the sex-and-drugs part of the equation and goes off into some cloud-cuckoo-land fantasy of what the field might look like that has almost nothing to do with reality.
Here’s the thing, though: Research was done. Quite a lot of research, in fact. I’ve heard from several people since my review appeared who were approached by the show’s creators about serving in some advisory capacity. And there’s evidence that the writers — Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Weitz and Alex Timbers — had facts at their disposal.
Example: When the series protagonist, a young oboist named Hailey (Lola Kirke), auditions for the “New York Symphony,” the conductor Rodrigo (Bernal) decides to hire her on the spot. But we can’t hire her, he’s told; we already have four oboes. “Well, then,” he says (I paraphrase), “I’ll change the first performance of the season to the Mahler 8th, because it has a fifth oboe. My contract specifies that I can change up to three performances a season.” I imagine the writers’ glee at having tracked down a piece that calls for five oboes. But they utterly missed the bigger picture, which is that the Mahler 8th — called the “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the size of the forces required, including a full chorus and eight vocal soloists — is a major undertaking for any orchestra. The thought of doing it because you need to accommodate an oboist is, for anyone in the field, extremely funny.
If you’re not in the field, though, it probably sounds like pedantic nitpicking.
When I sat down to write about the show, I had a whole catalogue of this kind of error. A member of the most prestigious orchestra in New York would never run out after a performance to play a Broadway show, even if the timing allowed it (concerts and Broadway shows start about the same time, last I looked), or play weddings and receptions for extra money; they pull in six-figure salaries and already work full time. A new music director would never be announced as a surprise in the middle of a concert. The head of the symphony board does not run the orchestra. A conductor would not bus the whole orchestra to rehearse in a vacant lot to help them loosen up. But it’s TV, you say, and this kind of thing happens all the time; does it really matter, if it’s fun to watch?
I realize that the alchemy of the entertainment media has a way of transforming the realities of any profession: medicine in “Grey’s Anatomy,” the legal world in “The Good Wife.” But when it comes to classical music, there’s an added factor: The popular image of classical music has a stronger hold on its depiction than any mere fact can challenge. Classical music is better, truer, more noble: That’s its meme, as it were. So people who are trying to depict it almost can’t help themselves. The creators of “Mozart in the Jungle” may have wanted to be hard-nosed and irreverent, but then they have Bernal’s character (a Gustavo Dudamel-like charismatic visionary) communing with Mozart, in the best tradition of cheesy 1930s biopics.
Here is what’s a little different about “Mozart in the Jungle”: The series comes at a time when the conventional wisdom has grasped the idea that there’s something wrong with the classical-music field. Tindall’s book is one of many pieces of evidence that there is some kind of problem. That problem is vaguely outlined in the series: Tenured orchestra musicians are too old! The field is too elitist! We need someone with vision to lead us down a new path! You can read variations on this theme in a range of “Classical music is dead” articles in a number of publications (often answered by outraged cries of “No, classical music is just fine!” from insiders and purists).
And the answer, whether or not you’re in the field, seems obvious: compelling programming and performances that grab you. The challenge is to imagine what that compelling programming might actually look like. This challenge seems hard enough for those within the field, and it’s all the harder for those who have no programming experience. I read part of one classical-music whodunit (a slender genre) about a similarly radical conductor who takes over an orchestra and electrifies audiences with exciting programs — the author’s idea of an exciting program was Schoenberg and Berg. I have nothing against Schoenberg and Berg, but I don’t think that a program of their music (nearly a century old, by now) is actually electrifying or that the author even thought so himself. I think he used it because he needed a work to slot in when his plot called for pieces that were unusual, challenging or difficult.
Similarly, a scene in “Mozart in the Jungle,” the series, calls for Bernal’s character to electrify the orchestra as he conducts a standard piece in rehearsal. The writers needed a piece that could catch the audience’s attention and dramatize the notion of drama, and what they came up with was Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” — an occasional piece, filled with pizazz and fireworks. It’s true, there may be a conductor who is able to find the kind of new joy and excitement in the “1812 Overture” that the great conductor Carlos Kleiber, for instance, was able to find in a seemingly trivial operetta like “Die Fledermaus.” But failing that, what you’re seeing and hearing on screen is not only routine, but banal, despite the fact that the script is telling us exactly the opposite.
Vision is hard to quantify in TV terms, or even in newspaper-article terms. Vision can be something as ambitious as a world premiere, or as simple as finding a conductor who sheds light on the most familiar works (Nicholas McGegan conducting “Messiah”). It can be a program that illuminates odd corners of the repertoire, or one that brings new fire to the best-known chestnut. It defies formulas; it varies from performer to performer. It also seems to be a hard thing for the classical-music field itself to grasp. So perhaps one shouldn’t fault “Mozart in the Jungle” for falling back on cliches; plenty of people within the field are doing exactly the same thing.