Do you think all classical musicians are a bunch of stiff, tuxedo-wearing blowhards playing dull music by a bunch of dead white guys? Wrong, amigo! Watch Amazon Studio’s Mozart in the Jungle, and you’ll find out that the secret lives of professional musicians are fueled by drugs and sex, crazy-intense relationships with tantrum-throwing bipolar conductors, and a passion for music that drives everyone a little crazy.
So, which is it? The stuffy or the scintillating? Well, like most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
When oboist Blair Tindall wrote her book on which the show is very loosely based, classical music outsiders – and even a few innocent insiders – were a little shocked to learn that those monkey suit-wearing musicians had real lives that were as messed up as those in the audience. Turns out, being a brilliant, conservatory-trailed violinist doesn’t make you immune to bad relationships (or bad hair days), addictions, temptations, or lots and lots of stress. Having spent nearly forty years both on the podium (yeah, I’ve actually been called Maestro, non-ironically) and within in the ranks of musicians, I can tell you that Mozart in the Jungle – for all its exaggerations and implausibilities – gets quite a few things right. Maybe not so much the details, but the big-picture stuff of how musicians think and behave.
1. Classical Musicians are Frickin’ Obsessives
From the oboist spending dozens of hours annoyingly practicing the same passage to the cellist fretting over every small twinge in the wrist of her bowing arm, musicians in Mozart in the Jungle are poster children for obsessive compulsive disorder. The clock-watching union rep, the conductor who mentally records each of the bass player’s thirteen errors in the rehearsal: classical musicians are way into the details of making music, sometimes actually losing sight of the bigger-picture music itself. Jungle gets this. Having said that, the show lets certain musicians be total slackers for the sake of character.
2. The Battle Between Musicians and the Man is Real
Mozart in the Jungle portrays an ongoing, low-boil conflict between the unionized musicians and the orchestra’s management and conductor, all seeking to do an end-run around the musicians’ contract and exploit their talents and time. Sadly, this is pretty true to life. As in any profession, musicians’ unions have worked hard to protect the rights and safety of their membership, helping to do away with the old-boy network that excluded women, negotiating a liveable wage and health benefits, etc. Sometimes – unfortunately – the unions’ inflexibility can hurt the very people they try to protect. Los Angeles musicians, for example, have been losing lucrative film and video game sessions to European orchestras, due to the union’s adamant demands for post-production royalties and higher than average hourly wage.
3. Professional Musicians are Jaded Cynics
Whether it’s playing in the pit for a heavy metal hair-band opera or making music under the hottest new conductor, musicians by and large just want to do their jobs, get paid, and go home. Or get high. Or laid. Whatever. The point is, professional musicians have seen it all and are rarely impressed by the Maestro du jour, the latest compositional gimmick, or the jet-setting soloist. They can be jaded and vicious towards less-than-proven newbies, will actively try to undermine the grandstanding egotists with the baton, and rarely have a good word to say about anyone’s performance. This attitude is not surprising given the reality that the newbie is probably better than you, the conductor might clean house and kick you to the curb, and everything you do is under scrutiny by everyone else. All the time.
4. Conductors are Infantile Egomaniacs
Mozart in the Jungle portrays a heated struggle between the tempestuous wunderkind conductor Rodrigo and the old school Maestro Thomas, who helmed the orchestra for decades and slowly let its standards erode. In Jungle‘s world, conductors are charismatic geniuses with the emotional maturity of toddlers, capable of acts of musical brilliance and horrific interpersonal ineptitude. Are conductors really like that?
Yes. Yes, we are.
In the real world, tantrum-throwing, matinee-idol conductors wouldn’t make it to a second rehearsal if they truly lacked musical genius and insight, though sometimes the jaded musicians have to be convinced that there is more than wild hair flailing about on the podium. Mozart in the Jungle gets this right, too.
5. Classical Musicians are People. People are Flawed.
Maybe it mucks around a little too much in the soap-operatic sex, drugs, and rock and roll shadow side of musicians – thanks, Amazon Prime and relaxed content standards! – but Mozart in the Jungle reminds us that far from being the stuffed shirts of the music world, classical musicians know how to party…I mean, they are real people with complicated lives that aren’t just about reeds, bowings, lessons, practice, practice, and more practice. In reality, the lives of established orchestra musicians are pretty mundane and after a few decades, it probably is just a job – albeit with surprising moments of transcendent beauty – and as in any profession, the younger people are struggling with competition, identity, relationships, money and security.
When I read Tindall’s book (written during a residency at the prestigious MacDowell colony) ten years ago, it would have seemed an unlikely subject for a television series. Pretty inside baseball kind of stuff. While it doesn’t stick too closely to the source, kudos to Amazon Studios for making a show that appeals to a wide audience while still shining at least some truthful light on the lives of some misunderstood musicians.
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