Amazon's "Mozart in the Jungle": If ONLY real musicians' lives were this wild

by Andrew Staupe, Special to MPR
February 24, 2014

I must admit that when I first saw the debut episode of Amazon's new Web series, Mozart in the Jungle, I had it all wrong. My first reaction was of disgust. The writers fixated not on the beauty of classical music and its artists, but only on a small minority who revel in a debaucherous lifestyle. The show's attempt to accurately depict classical musicians was laughably absurd; I was offended and wanted to stop watching.

I had read Blair Tindall's 2005 book by the same name — an autobiographical account of Tindall's tumultuous career as a professional oboist in New York, which served as the basis for the Amazon show — years back so I knew generally what to expect, but the show was so ridiculous that I could barely watch it.

Then I watched it again, recalling that Amazon classifies the show as a comedy. Suddenly everything changed. I started watching it as if I was viewing an episode of The Office or Sex and the City, and suddenly it made complete sense to me. It became highly entertaining, if excessively raunchy in places; the TV-MA rating is there for a reason, be forewarned.

While the comedic element is certainly the most prevalent aspect of the show, there's plenty of potential drama that the writers can exploit in future episodes. There's a power struggle between Malcolm McDowell (brilliantly portraying a stereotypical aging maestro) and heir-to-the-throne Gael Garcia Bernal (a perfect Gustavo Dudamel doppelganger); and a developing romance involving oboist Hailey (Lola Kirke, sister of Girls star Jemima Kirke) and a hot ballet dancer (Peter Vack).

The show portrays classical musicians' lives as being full of sex, booze, and bad decisions. While I was initially taken aback by the show's insinuation that all professional musicians live this amorous lifestyle, I later realized that this is a Web show. No one would pay too much attention to the normal lives of most classical musicians, and these writers knew that.

How, exactly, are these characters different from real classical musicians? For starters, the general way of life that some of the main characters follow is simply unrealistic. The character Cynthia, who is a cellist in the fictional New York Symphony, is seen hurrying to her next gig — playing in the pit of a jukebox musical on Broadway — immediately after a symphony concert. No musician in a top-tier orchestra would ever do something like that.

Furthermore, while musicians do get together at parties — and yes, we often enjoy sight-reading chamber music at these events — the scene with a musical excerpt competition involving a "Spin the Bottle" contraption is unlike anything I've ever seen. I have to admit, watching that scene I wished there actually were parties like that! Maybe the idea will catch on.

Finally, while Bernadette Peters's character Gloria is stunningly convincing as one of New York's elite music connoisseurs, her highfalutin demeanor reinforces the sense of exclusivity and snobbery that outsiders generally perceive classical music patrons to have. I wished the show had, for stark contrast, depicted the vast majority of other music professionals: practicing diligently, at home taking care of their children, or (responsibly) enjoying an evening with friends.

If you want to gain an understanding of how the classical music world actually functions, look elsewhere than Mozart in the Jungle — but if you want a comedy very loosely based on the lives of a small minority of classical musicians, then there is a wealth of entertainment waiting to be had. As a teaser to a planned series, the first episode is currently streaming for free.

Andrew Staupe, a native of St. Paul, is active internationally as a concert pianist.

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