The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Amazon’s new TV comedy “Mozart in the Jungle — Sex, Drugs and Classical Music” depicts the problems of classical musicians in New York City, and gets cheers and jeers from critics for The New York Times and National Public Radio. | January 22, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Bankrupt symphony orchestras and opera companies?

Highly trained but out-of-work classical musicians?

The unfortunate realities of classical music in contemporary American culture have made their way into a fictional comedy.

Fresh off its surprise win in the Golden Globe awards, Amazon Studios is broadcasting an unusual comedy series based on the behind-the-scenes problems and trials of classical musicians in New York City.

It is called “Mozart in the Jungle” – a title that reminds The Ear of the moving scenes in the classic film “Out of Africa” where recordings of works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  — including the sublime middle movement of the Clarinet Concerto — are played by multiple Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep and Robert Redford on a phonograph in the midst of the African bush.

Below is a photo by Nicole Rivelli of Amazon Studios that shows Gael García Bernal (right), Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell starring in the classical music comedy series “Mozart in the Jungle.” You can see the trailer, which has a lot of details and bacground and which already has more than 1 million hits, for the new streaming series in a YouTube video at the bottom.

mozart in the jungle

But this urbane comedy take gets mixed marks for its realistic depiction of the difficulties of the classical music scene in New York City, which could easily apply elsewhere.

Here is the critique from NPR of National Public Radio by Anastasia Tsioulcas:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/01/15/377232599/what-we-love-and-hate-about-mozart-in-the-jungle

And here is the review by critic and reviewer Zachary Woolfe for The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/arts/television/mozart-in-the-jungle-an-amazon-series.html?_r=0

If you have watched “Mozart in the Jungle, let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.

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8 Comments »

  1. OK. I wrote the book. I lived the life. I didn’t make anything up. Get over yourselves, since not one of the commenters is an actual professional musician, as I am. The TV show is impressive, they got everything life. For all you amateurs carelessly commenting, you have no clue. They got it right. That’s really how it happened.

    Comment by Blair Tindall — January 23, 2015 @ 9:51 pm

    • If I were that thin-skinned about it, I might reconsider my career choice after reading your comment. I guess encouraging young musicians isn’t as important as making a buck off shock and awe.

      Comment by musicstudent — February 9, 2015 @ 12:17 am

  2. I have to take issue with Mikko Utevsky’s depiction of the NPR review (and others) in his comment (#4 here).
    Here are Mr. Utevsky’s comments (in pertinent part): “I don’t think you and I read the same NPR article, Jake – that one looks like it praises a few insightful lines while pointing out the massive failures the show tends toward in its depiction of our industry. That’s basically the consensus of the other reviews I’d seen – that, and that the show is absolutely terrible, even taken independently of the classical music world. It certainly looks like trash from the clips I’ve seen…”

    While I haven’t seen the series (and it appears Mr. Utevsky has not either) I HAVE read the review that referred to and many others; they are almost overwhelmingly positive. Rotten Tomatoes, based on 20 different critical reviews, gave the series a 95% which is a very high score (positive) in their system.

    Interestingly, the NPR reviewer criticized the series for being inaccurate in musical terms, for example, for being unrealistic about it showing a musician cleaning an oboe with wet swipes The writer, echoing Mr. Utevsky, grouses that “This is one of a gazillion tiny, telling details the show gets utterly wrong.” But in reality, it appears the reviewer is the one off base because a professional oboist wrote a comment taking the reviewer to task and saying that he had done the very same thing! In the same way, another comment writer takes the series to task for the fingering by a cellist while another wrote in that the person was a real cellist who had studied with Carter Brey!

    It should also be mentioned that the series is intended to be a comedy/parody; certainly its treatment of the Conductor Rodgrigo character seems to do that very well! Nice too that real life musicians are taking cameo roles in the series, including Joshua Bell.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 23, 2015 @ 7:34 am

  3. Here’s are some extracts from a pretty well-balanced (largely positive) review of the series from The Guardian (U.K.) which also does a good job on giving background information on the series. The reviewer hates the name, by the way! Note especially the comments about bringing people into the classical world who presently know little about it:

    “…something happens after watching several episodes together: the universe grows around you, pulling you in and getting you slowly interested in these people’s lives and, yes, even the classical music world it tries to glorify. While the country music stars of Nashville (the show, not the city) can be appealing to non-country fans, they always look glamorous. There is a struggle here that is hard to fathom for non-fans of the genre – it just doesn’t seem worth it to torture oneself for such little gain. And conversely, the popularity of Rodrigo seems to make little sense in today’s cultural landscape where most people can name every member of the Kardashian clan, but not one conductor. Still, it’s the people and their stories that are winning, even if it takes a bit of a leap to bridge the cultural gap.”

    “Mozart in the Jungle manages to be fun and fast-paced, with episodes that fly by and then pick up right where they left off, like a five-hour movie chopped up into little bits rather than a show with self-contained episodes. It’s a perfect structure for bingeing, and I have a feeling this show is much more enjoyable in one sitting than it would be spaced out from week to week. Regardless, it feels a little slight, happy to dwell on the surface without really getting its hands dirty with the politics and backstabbing of this highly competitive world and the Type A personalities that inhabit it.”

    “Which characters will you love? Really this is an ensemble show, and that ensemble is its greatest asset. Hailey, the struggling oboist, is the center of the action and luckily the most appealing of all the characters. Everyone else is interesting (Burrows especially shines as a steely vet struggling with getting older) but not dynamic enough to be real stunners.

    “Which characters will you hate? It’s hard to hate Rodrigo, but some of the things that are supposed to make him a genius are a little groan-inducing, like having a parrot in a rehearsal space or telling people to listen to the symphony of the city. The one person you will really hate is Hailey’s roommate Lizzie (Hannah Dunne), who is meant to be comic relief but is just a pest.

    “What’s the best thing about it? Mozart in the Jungle joins the growing ranks of shows filmed in New York City that uses its exteriors with grace and skill. The Public Theater serves as the facade for the (fictitious) New York Symphony’s headquarters, and the parks, streets, theaters and front stoops of the city serve as meeting places and professional venues that add a grounding realness to the well-executed production.

    “What’s the worst thing about it? Rodrigo’s hair, which undergoes a transformation in episode three and only manages to get distractingly worse.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/culture/tvandradioblog/2014/dec/23/mozart-in-the-jungle-amazon-show-review

    Comment by fflambeau — January 23, 2015 @ 6:10 am

  4. So far, I have only seen the trailer so I will focus on that. Is the “Rodrigo” in the program based on the youthful conductor of the LA Philarmonic, Gustavo Dudamel? It certainly seems so, right down to the name with an “O” at the end and of course, the portrayal of a vigorous, youthful (Latin) conductor. Rather impressive actors (like Malcom McDowell) in the series and as someone else points out, an impressive writer/producer as well. Why not give the series a chance? The series is based on a real life classical musician’s experiences: oboist Blair Tindall’s 2005 memoir of her career in NYC. Rotten Tomatoes gave the series a 95% rating based on 20 reviews. Critics from Rolling Stone, to the LA Times, to TV.Com to Variety have praised it. Kory Grow of Rolling Stone heaped praise on the series, writing that “[t]hanks to quirky scripts and a smart ensemble cast… it comes off whimsical without ringing off-pitch.” If classical musicians are not “in demand”, that really is a reflection on the failings of our society in general, not on classical music, the musicians or their training, which is superb. This series could be a bridge for some to the classical world; not a bad idea at all.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 23, 2015 @ 5:47 am

  5. Out of hundreds of terrific reviews, there were exactly three bad ones, and you chose one of them, from NPR. (Incidentally, the only bad ones were from classical critics.) And their complaints showed a hilarious ignorance of the details they were critiquing. The commenter above — a music student, not a professional, critiqued a show he has not seen…typical.

    Classical music is finally represented — and well — in pop culture, by a show creator with deep classical connections (relative of both Carmine and Anton Coppola, the latter of whom consulted for the show). I shake my head at classical musicians’ unending ability to shoot themselves in their collective foot. And by the way, not sure why the cackling over the Times review. It was superlative. The show, by the way, is based on a book of the same name, written by an actual professional musician in the trenches.

    Comment by orangeiguana — January 22, 2015 @ 8:02 am

  6. I don’t think you and I read the same NPR article, Jake – that one looks like it praises a few insightful lines while pointing out the massive failures the show tends toward in its depiction of our industry. That’s basically the consensus of the other reviews I’d seen – that, and that the show is absolutely terrible, even taken independently of the classical music world. It certainly looks like trash from the clips I’ve seen…

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — January 22, 2015 @ 12:14 am

    • Hi Mikko,
      I reread them and agree with you. This time the negative stuff stood out more, just as you said. I guess I thought the reviews had been pretty good, considering it was for TV. Anyway, I made some adjustments to reflect the mixed nature and negative aspects of the reviews. Thank you for your always insightful comments and corrections. Best Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 22, 2015 @ 6:27 am


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