As February approaches, many orchestral musicians are gearing up for the much-anticipated fourth season of Amazon’s award-winning original series Mozart in the Jungle. Based on a 2005 tell-all memoir by oboist Blair Tindall, “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music,” the series explores the activities and the drama of the fictional New York Symphony Orchestra. Needless to say, reactions from musicians have been mixed. Whether you are a member of the classical music community or somebody interested in what we do, a fan of the show or a skeptic, here are a few interesting episodes that are worth watching or re-watching through the lens of an orchestral musician.
Season Two, Episode 6: “How to Make God Laugh”
The orchestra is on tour in Mexico City, the hometown of dynamic but unpredictable principal conductor Rodrigo de Sousa. He goes on an unscheduled visit to his grandmother’s home in a small town nearby, stopping by a rehearsal of a local youth orchestra that he belonged to when he was growing up. He suddenly finds himself facing a difficult choice – his beloved mentor asks him to leave his New York Symphony post and return to Mexico to take over this youth orchestra. Rodrigo is caught between a desire to give as much as he can back to his community and his commitment to a high-profile performance career.
To make this trip to his grandmother’s home, Rodrigo blows off a meeting with an important donor. The former conductor of the orchestra, Maestro Pembridge, and Gloria, the president of the orchestra, are on their own to convince billionaire Juan Luis Delgado to sponsor a new concert hall. Pembridge gives a goofy winning pitch. He asks Delgado what his beloved herd of wild mustangs would do if they didn’t have the sanctuary he built for them, and compares an orchestra without a hall to a herd without a sanctuary. He also dangles the prospect of Delgado’s name being etched in history alongside other patrons (Emperor Franz Joseph, Cosimo de Medici).
The counterpoint between the two stories is quite poignant. The star musician is torn between returning to his home and his artistic career while the directors of the institution he is committed to must uncomfortably flatter the richest man in Mexico to keep the symphony running.
Season, Two, Episode 4: “Touché, Maestro, Touché”
Hailey Rutledge, aspiring oboist and star of the show, spends the night hanging out and bowling with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Lang Lang. Their cameos are great but pianist Emmanuel Ax steals the show, spending the entire night in the corner of the bar playing Dance Dance Revolution.
Season Three, Episode 6: “Symphony of Red Tape”
The musicians are on strike! Everybody comes together for the christening of a newborn baby, whose dads are on opposite sides of the conflict. Rodrigo decides to save the day by locking everybody in the church until the strike is resolved. (Of course – that is definitely how things get done in the real world of musician contract negotiations!). This one is worth it just to see the president of the orchestra and the principal oboist go shot for shot until they work out a new contract.
Season Three, Episode 7: “Not Yet Titled”
“Not Yet Titled” is a meta, documentary-style episode about a classical concert in a prison. The plot is straightforward: Rodrigo brings the orchestra to give a concert at Rikers Island, New York City’s main prison facility. The orchestra presents a program of works of Messiaen, written during and immediately after the composer’s time in a prisoner-of-war camp during WWII. To film the episode, they brought an actual orchestra to Rikers Island for the first time in the facility’s history and gave a concert for inmates. It features interviews with actual inmates and musicians about their experiences, along with staged interviews with characters from the show. Lara Zarum discusses the process of making the episode in detail in her article for Flavorwire.
Responses to the episode have been mixed. Some have praised the ambition of the project and the fact that it prompted the Chelsea Symphony, the real orchestra featured in the episode, to do further performances at Rikers Island. Still, in her article on AV/TV Club, Esther Zuckerman points out some of the major flaws in the episode, namely the ways in which moments inappropriately romanticize the facility, which has been repeatedly criticized for poor treatment of inmates, and the strange tone created by the mockumentary format of the episode.
I would add to the list of grievances a moment at the beginning of the episode where it is made clear that the orchestra has not been told where or what they are going to be playing. The repertoire on the concert (Quartet for the End of Time and Turangalila Symphony) is extremely difficult and would not realistically have been readable in an afternoon. This casual attitude inaccurately suggests that a visit to a prison is not something for which an orchestra would have to carefully prepare.
Despite these issues, the episode does highlight the valuable community engagement work that orchestral organizations do. Many of the interviews with the inmates are quite moving, though it should be acknowledged that they seem rather one-sided and potentially staged. The overall message of the episode is an important one – that musical encounters can be very meaningful even if they are brief. In short, “Not Yet Titled,” like many episodes of Mozart in the Jungle, is useful as a jumping-off point for having conversations about how orchestras operate and the work that they can and should do.
Mozart in the Jungle streams on Amazon Prime.
By Civic Fellow and cello Nicky Swett
TOP IMAGE Mozart in the Jungle star Gael Garcia Berna, as Rodrigo de Sousa, conductor of the fictional New York Symphony. | © AMAZON 2017