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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Television Review: Don't Call Him "Dude"

Amazon.com's Mozart in the Jungle.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Waltz of the flowers Gael Garcia Bernal as Rodrigo in Mozart in the Jungle.
Image © 2014 Amazon.com
With a full concert schedule and other writing jobs, it sometimes takes time to commit to watching a new television series. And to be honest, a TV show set around a major symphony orchestra in New York City sits uncomfortably close to home. That said, Amazon.com's Mozart in the Jungle is (after the first six episodes of Season One, initially aired in 2014) an absolute hoot.

The show is based on the memoir of the same title, written in 2005 by oboist Blair Tindall. It skewers many current figures in the close-knit classical music community: over-eager assistants, predatory board members, and egotistical, dueling conductors whose tongues are sharper than the point of a baton. There's lots of music in each episode and a solid comic cast. The facets of the performing musician's life are shown immediately. The first episode opens with a cellist (Saffron Burrows) rushing from a Tchaikovsky rehearsal to a performance of Oedipus Rex on Broadway with music by the rock band Styx. That sets the tone for the cheerful insanity that follows.

Mozart is centered around two characters. Hailey (Lola Kirke) is an ambitious young oboist who becomes personal assistant to the brilliant young conductor Rodrigo de Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal.) At the series open, Rodrigo is crowned as the new music director of the "New York Symphony". He is a thin analogue for the vibrant Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who also appears in a Season Two cameo. He's replacing Thomas Pembridge (Malcom MacDowell) the acid-tongued, talented and thoroughly traditional conductor who has led the orchestra for years--himself a possible portrait of the late Lorin Maazel.

The NYS itself is an analogue of a certain institution that is frequently the subject of this blog. The Public Theater on Lafayette serves as the exterior of its main performance space, with the auditorium of the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase used for performance and rehearsal. The show uses its New York locations well, with some of the musicians living in luxury apartments, post-grad bohemian flops and the endless subterranean corridors backstage. At the same time, Hailey wins a seat in the oboe section, which ends after a disastrous rehearsal of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. In the second episode, she has to deal with infighting in her own section and the problem of a roommate that has heard her play the same oboe line over and over and has been driven up the wall. Eventually she becomes Rodrigo's assistant and the fun really starts.

Much of the show is centered around orchestral politics and the infighting that occurs at the highest levels. The two maestros hug, bond, complain to each other, and perform musical parlor tricks for board donations. They even get to conduct, quickly substituting Tchaikovsky for Mahler when their reach exceeds their grasp. Thomas is the cynical world-weary professional. Rodrigo is the young idealist, whose naiveté is balanced by his keen musical perception and his acute ear that seems to transform anything into music--a kind of ditzy synesthesia that reminds one of Aleksandr Scriabin.

A lot of the humor in Mozart is about romantic misunderstandings: very often the rumors and gossip are more important than the actual sex that goes on. The show is caustic and fast-paced, with its eccentric characters drawn as quick sketches that snap into focus and a collection of easily recognized stereotypes that eventually individuate into well-written characters. The constant change of writing teams and directors gives the listener a fresh perspective, this group effort might be very different if it were the work of a single auteur.

There's the bitterness of the first chair player (Debra Monk) the drug-dealing percussionist (John Miller) and the flautist known as "Union Bob"  (Paul Blum) who taps his watch for a ten-minute break at the most inopportune moments. The show also takes cheerful aim at soundtrack composers, virtuosos turned downtown performance artists, and a wide spectrum of New Yorkers in all walks of artistic life. As with the best satire, there is affection in these portraits, along with the understanding that these people are professionals as well as deeply flawed human beings. And yes. Even the bloggers get skewered, with show writer Jason Schwartzman capturing the difficulty of dancing about architecture. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.