Mozart in the Jungle

Oboist Blair Tindall's memoir has been turned into a web-based TV series, with mixed results

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Mozart in the Jungle
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Mozart in the Jungle is a terribly-titled not-quite TV series. Not quite because it’s been created by Amazon Prime, a video streaming offshoot of the online retail giant, and so isn’t actually ‘on television’ but is one of a new wave of online-only series. Not quite, too, because its ten 25-30-minute episodes seem more like parts of a chopped up film, with the plot of each individual episode rather less important than the overall lines of the series.

Based on oboist Blair Tindall’s 2005 memoir of the sex, drugs and drama bubbling away behind the refined façade of the concert hall, Mozart in the Jungle centres on the New York Symphony, an orchestral modelled on the New York Philharmonic. The writers include Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Weitz and Alex Timbers. We join the story as old-school maestro Thomas Pembridge (an excellent Malcolm McDowell) has taken his final bow and handed on the baton to Bright Young Thing Rodrigo De Souza (modelled on Gustavo Dudamel, surely; played winningly by Gael García Bernal).

All hopes are pinned on him to turn the ailing orchestra’s fortunes around with his maverick brilliance: he holds impromptu concerts in abandoned city spaces, brings a parrot to rehearsal and is mobbed by fans (though he vetoes marketing posters screaming ‘Hear the hair’). But the jury's out as to whether he has the substance to back up the style. In one rehearsal Rodrigo says to the orchestra ‘We are different harmonic strings of the same vocal chord'. One musician asks another, ‘so does he it want it faster or slower’?’

Enter 26-year-old oboist Hailey Rutledge – played by Lola Kirke, whose sister Jemima, incidentally, plays Jessa in hit HBO series Girls. She's struggling to realise her dream to play in the world-renowned New York Symphony. Or even just to make enough money to get by. Add to that mix a host of other characters, including savvy orchestral cellist Cynthia Taylor (Saffron Burrows), the hilarious smooth-talking radio host Bradford Sharpe – ‘classical music is our forte’ (Jason Schwartzman), the attractive dancer-choreographer Alex (Peter Vack), and the sophisticated, soiree-throwing, fundraising chair of the orchestra Gloria (Bernadette Peters). Violinist Joshua Bell puts in an appearance as himself in the pilot. Stick with it long enough and you’ll be rewarded with the guy from the Orange adverts as the money-man behind the orchestra.

The ‘expose’ element of the series is not as outrageous as billed, though one scene in the pilot wouldn’t be out of the place in Sex and the City. Prescription drugs are two-a-penny, throwing up real questions about the use of beta-blockers to curb stage fright, say, or drugs to ease arthritis in a cellist’s hand. It’s a drama and a comedy, though sometimes not quite enough of either. The script understands the dilemmas facing modern-day orchestras: where will the money come from? Is classical music too elitist? How can new audiences be reached without alienating already loyal concertgoers? But its strength lies in the myriad smaller human dramas and the likeable characters.

Mozart in the Jungle is inconsistent, implausible, pretty cheesy and will probably rile musicians and non-musicians alike. Yet it's weirdly watchable. Like Hailey’s oboe playing, it’s hard to place: not terrible, not brilliant. Shows promise.

 

 

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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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