This Was Always Meant to Help Us: Author Blair Tindall on Mozart in the Jungle
Compared to, say, pop or country, hip-hop or heavy metal, sales of classical music have been dropping for decades. Big-time metropolitan symphony orchestras have downsized personnel or shuttered their doors completely, leaving legions of hard-working, skilled musicians unemployed and unable to practice their craft. The most ardent (and affluent) fans of classical music and opera are ageing and school music programs are being gutted in the face of budgets refocused on the “common core.”
In short, it’s not an optimal time to be an aspiring-or even established-classical musician. You would think, then, that a highly entertaining, well-acted and smartly written television series about this under-represented “tribe” would be embraced by that very population. But according to Blair Tindall, author of the book on which Amazon Studios’ Mozart in the Jungle is based, it is the classical music critics or performers who have been most dismissive of the show, even when praising its entertainment value.
“I’m so disappointed in the few members of my profession who focus on, for instance, whether a screened audition is backlit,” Tindall said, or”whether an audition happens last minute (do we really want to watch the tedium of applying and preparing for an audition?), or how someone holds a cello case.” Tindall said that all along, the aim was to “take a more popular dramatic approach,” and not be either a documentary or a literal recreation of her book. “All of these calls were made consciously, and people need to get a grip and see the larger picture.”
Tindall’s book-part autobiography, part cautionary tale-appeared in 2005 and was a popular success, but controversial amongst classical musicians who objected to Tindall’s hardly shocking revelations that some artists’ lives were, in part, fueled by drugs and sex and that musical politics were as corrupt and difficult to navigate as those of nearly every profession. Most inflammatory was Tindall’s assertion that, as she now summarizes, “Music conservatories are unnecessary and the lack of general education they offer can really slow down an otherwise promising life.”
Not long after it was published, actor Jason Schwartzman caught an Entertainment Weekly review of Mozart in the Jungle, and approached Tindall to adapt the book. “We signed in 2009 and quickly got an HBO deal. However, they passed on us for their current series, Girls, but then Amazon (Studios) came about. It was the Coppola family — I didn’t entertain any other offers.”
Schwartzman is the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola. His first cousins are Roman (one of the writers and directors on the show) and Sophia Coppola and Nic Cage. His great-uncle is the conductor and composer Anton Coppola and his grandfather was NBC Symphony flutist Carmine Coppola. With this impressive musical and entertainment industry team lending its support, and with excellent casting-including Lola Kirke, Malcolm McDowell, Bernadette Peters, and Gael Garcia Bernal-Mozart in the Jungle is much more than a tabloid expose of a misunderstood profession. It tackles some fundamental issues of life as a working musician, from the unending pressure to perform at the highest level to the bickering between union musicians and those charged with keeping the organization solvent.
The series focuses on a young, aspiring oboist trying to establish a career as a working musician in New York, while encountering jaded colleagues, quirky roommates, demanding conductors, hormonal private students, and typically difficult romantic relationships. While updated from the 1980’s (the focus of Tindall’s book), director/writer Paul Weitz “scoured my book for details, and they are included in every scene. Most of the characters and many scenes are taken directly from the book.” Tindall herself spent time on set and in the writers’ room as an advisor, contributed story ideas, and even appears in a cameo-as a horn player-in the final episode.
Musicians have quibbled with the kind of details only deep insiders would worry about-soloists entering the stage from the wrong side, a lack of music stands in an outdoor performance, the questionable use of some specific pieces of music, etc.-but Tindall prefers to focus on how much the series gets right. “What they did is absolutely brilliant. It’s virtually impossible to have non-musicians mime instruments and conducting to a musician’s eye, but I thought they did as well as anyone could. Believe me, they know how everything happens and were very concerned to stick as close to the truth as possible. The amount of detail they got right is just astonishing to me.”
Ignore some of the details, and a bigger, truer picture emerges of orchestra musicians and conductors who may be flawed and confused and inconsistent, but passionate about every aspect of their craft.
In fact, a large team of professional musicians helped prepare the actors. “They employed a full-time music coach for each of the actors playing an instrument or conducting (Ransom Wilson among them). By the end, all of them could play at least a little bit; and this was Saffron Burrows’ third role as a cellist. She can actually play.” In particular, Malcolm McDowell and Gael Garcia Bernal-who play the tempestuous old-and-new school Maestros-received extensive instruction. “Ransom Wilson coached Gael for conducting, and the fine violinist Conrad Harris for violin. The show’s composer, Roger Neill, coached both on conducting.” Unfortunately, said Tindall, “there’s some kind of disconnect onscreen, because both Gael and Malcolm were quite convincing in person, less so onscreen.”
Tindall added ” I kind of crack up when musicians complain about their conducting technique. Most real conductors have questionable technique. I worked with (Leonard) Bernstein — wow, that was hard to decipher!”
In the series (and in real life), clock-watching union reps often interrupt the flow of rehearsal to call for mandated breaks, and in the real world, according to Tindall, “American union musicians have shot themselves in the foot by demanding residuals and back payments that I wish we could have, but cannot get. A back payment on a recording session that never happened is zero. So all our recording work has gone to London, eastern Europe (where the show’s score was recorded), Canada, and Seattle (they have a unique union arrangement). The theme music was recorded in LA, but it was non-union. And interestingly, I’m so thoroughly blacklisted over anger about the book, that I was not hired for the session.”
Despite some not unexpected internet carping from musicians and the classical music press, Tindall is grateful and thrilled that her book received such loving and careful attention. “I’m delighted with everything. It’s not a documentary. You have to tell a story in a very short time. It made sense to use shorthand to make the story compelling and understandable to non-musicians.”
Tindall attributes some of the musical backlash against Mozart in the Jungle to “jealousy. Most of it is helplessness. People feel doomed and helpless.” But what they fail to understand is that the series is “meant as a love letter to my tribe, the unappreciated, hard-working musician. It’s perceived as a simple-minded tell-all. Which it’s not at all. I think the main message is to have a life. Just meeting the actors taught me a lot — they are so good in their roles because they’re really like that. They’ve lived full lives. So have I, and none of this ever would have happened otherwise.”
Tindall is relatively certain that the series will have a second season. Meantime, Mozart in the Jungle is available in its entirety on Amazon Prime.
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