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What We Love And Hate About 'Mozart In The Jungle'

Gael García Bernal (right), Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell star in the classical music comedy series <em>Mozart in the Jungle</em>.
Nicole Rivelli
Amazon Studios
Gael García Bernal (right), Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell star in the classical music comedy series Mozart in the Jungle.

Pill popping, pot smoking, back-stabbing, bed hopping and tantrum throwing — now we're talking classical music! At least that's what the new Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle would have us believe is all in a day's work for orchestra musicians. The 10-part series is based on a tell-all book of the same name published a decade ago by oboist Blair Tindall.

The small-screen version depicts the fictitious New York Symphony on the threshold of its season-opening concert, the first with its charismatic but capricious new conductor Rodrigo (single name only, please!), played with goofy charm by Gael García Bernal and more than loosely inspired by Gustavo Dudamel, the dynamic Los Angeles Philharmonic music director. There's also a perky newcomer oboist named Hailey (modeled on Tindall), played by Lola Kirke; the orchestra's general manager Gloria, in a believable turn by Bernadette Peters; and Malcolm McDowell as the high-strung conductor replaced by Rodrigo. (The series is also stuffed with guest appearances, from violinist Joshua Bell as himself to Wallace Shawn playing a hyper-neurotic pianist in the tradition of Glenn Gould.)

For classical music nerds (and a few critics), the series has triggered something of a tempest in a teapot. Indeed, whenever the entertainment industry takes on a profession, be it doctors, lawyers or meth cookers, there are bound to be gaffes experts will grouse about. But Mozart in the Jungle seems to have more easily avoidable goofs than it should, from the music programming to the ways actors hold their instruments.

Still, the series tries to have fun. And when's the last time you saw a show in which classical music and pop culture collide? Here are a few of our favorite moments — for better and/or worse.

Sibelius on TV

Given the perceived disinterest in classical music in this country, I have to admit a certain giddy joy just watching a program about an orchestra. Alas, only occasionally is the music given enough breathing room to display its powers. Music does shine brightly in the final episode, where the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius has a glorious moment. — TH

"Hailey, will you please make my maté?"

The fresh-faced, oboe-playing heroine is recruited to assist conductor Rodrigo. One of her jobs is to concoct his beloved yerba maté tea, yet her dream is to play in the orchestra. Her personal crisis of identity is mirrored in the show itself. It can't really make up its mind what it wants to be. Is it a behind the scenes peek at classical music? Is it Hailey's story, a kind of Mary Tyler Moore in the symphonic world? Or is it just a comedic romp that uses a fictitious New York orchestra as a framing device? — TH

Betty: "What are you, some kind of masochist?"

Hailey: "Maybe, I don't know. Don't you kind of have to be to play the oboe?"

Very occasionally, the show is absolutely on point. While some may think that willfully secluding oneself in the confines of classical music is its own form of masochism — considering an infamous academic study in which orchestral musicians demonstrated less job satisfaction than federal prison guards — one could argue that oboists have a particularly sorry lot. They have to deal with an incredibly finicky instrument, constantly make and refine their equipment in a very time-consuming and mind-blowingly detailed process and, at least according to tradition, suffer a higher risk of serious and alarming injuries (especially to the eyes and brain). So yes, Hailey, you're probably something of a masochist. — AT

"Classical music has been losing money for people for 500 years. It's not a business."

Always looking for fundraising opportunities, Gloria, the head of the symphony, admits that the orchestra's finances are in trouble. I appreciate how the show at least touches on some of the contemporary concerns about classical music, including tensions between the musicians union and management and crazy marketing schemes drummed up to spin the music as something hip for younger audiences. — TH

Jacques Ibert's Pièce.

For me, the best episode in the first season without question is "You Go to My Head," episode 7. Written by Adam Brooks and Kate Gersten, and directed by Roman Coppola (who along with Schwartzman and Alex Timbers created Mozart), it's a lovely and dreamy episode artfully stitched with tons of tiny, emotionally truthful moments. We watch a very young girl, Alice, play this music by Ibert on her flute. Rodrigo, mesmerized, seeks her out and asks her what she feels when she plays. She says the most beautiful thing: "When I play in front of my teacher, I'm mostly thinking about how I don't want to make a mistake. But when I'm home, and I play to myself, I really don't think at all. And when I finish, it's like waking from a dream." — AT

Bending down on hand and knee to clean up bird poop with a scarf. (Really?)

In Mozart in the Jungle's fake New York, almost none of the players we see are Asian — whereas in reality, many American orchestras have a significant number of players of East Asian background and descent. But the character of Asian descent given by far the most screen time in the series is Sharon, the weirdly subservient and sycophantic administrative minion who figures heavily in the first couple of episodes. One of her big moments is rushing to clean up some parrot guano with her own clothing — scrubbing off Rodrigo's shoe, no less. The pileup of ugly stereotypes gives me the heebie-jeebies. — AT

Performing Mahler's Eighth Symphony ("Symphony of a Thousand") is a Really Big Deal.

There are good reasons Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony is rarely performed. The difficult piece takes, at a minimum, hundreds of singers and players. Early in the series, Rodrigo decides at the last moment to change a program to include it. That would never happen because you couldn't pull all the moving parts together that quickly. And when they do rehearse the symphony, there are far too few musicians on stage. — TH

"Welcome Bach."

"That was Xenakis with Analogiques A et B. You're listening to another edition of B. Sharp, a musical podcast where classical music is our forte ... First question: Is classical music dead?" This is the introduction to a podcast interview hosted by one Bradford Sharp (played by Jason Schwartzman, one of the creators of this series). Between Sharp's choice of incredibly challenging music, the string of horrendous puns and his idiotic opening question, how could I not love this bit? — AT

And no, Hailey, you can't clean an oboe with wet wipes.

This is one of a gazillion tiny, telling details the show gets utterly wrong. (I won't even touch the glaring mistakes the actors make in pretending to play.) I'm sure that this is just as true for legal eagles watching Law & Order reruns, but it's galling just the same — maybe partly because a pop culture spotlight is so rarely thrown on the classical world. (The real answer, by the way, is to clean an oboe with a cloth swab. Or a turkey's tail feather. Seriously.) — AT

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.