My daughter and I have a running gag going in which we compete to come up with the most outrageous and implausible punchline to a classical musical joke. You know, like “He played pizzicato when he should have played portamento!,” followed by exaggerated guffaws and knee-slaps.
I suspect the scriptwriters for a new classical music-based TV series called “Mozart in the Jungle” (released today on Amazon Instant Video) might have been eavesdropping on our hilarity. Here’s my transcription of a scene from the pilot, where a young hot-shot conductor upbraids an honored elder of the podium at a post-performance party:
Emily Wu, the first violin, she played sharp seventeen time in the first movement alone! And then the horns came a bar late, which completely threw off the clarinets, and we weren’t able to weren’t able to perceive Tchaikovsky’s desired dynamic shift from bars 27 to 34!
As I’m sure my professional musician friends would vouch, that is absolute gobbledygook. It’s not the only forehead-slapper in the pilot, either. Sure, the producers hired enough actual musicians to make the orchestral scenes (with something called the “New York Symphony”) look fairly real. A cameo by Joshua Bell, who not only plays the final bars of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto but handles a few lines of dialogue, also adds to the verisimilitude.
But the “conductors,” played by Gael García Bernal and Malcolm McDowell, flail about with no sense of rhythm, the script is rife with non-sequiturs as bad as the one quoted above, and the whole plot line, drenched in glamour, ego and of course, sex, is absolutely ridiculous.
And you know what? I loved every moment.
Fictionalized from journalist and oboist Blair Tindall’s real-life memoir of the same name (subtitled “Sex, Drugs and Classical Music”), “Mozart in the Jungle” follows the life and career of a young female oboist from North Carolina trying to break into the New York classical scene. Let that soak in for a moment: It’s a TV series about a classical musician. What fan of classical music wouldn’t applaud that?
Those who can’t get past the inauthenticity of it all, such at least one prominent classical music critic, that’s who. Fair enough; if you’re extremely annoyed by such things, this is not the show for you. But not only would it never have occurred to me to ask for classical music authenticity from a TV series, I could imagine too much authenticity making for a duller, less entertaining experience for the average viewer.
Take the scene from the young conductor that I quoted above. I know it’s nonsense, and you might too. But to get the point across the general audience that the performance sucked, I think it’s just right. Anything subtler would go over the audience’s heads, not because the audience is stupid, but because they’re not as conversant with “inside music” talk as you and I are. This speech is in the classic tradition of such dialogue as that from the 1945 film noir “Laura” that I quoted in an earlier blog:
DETECTIVE: You know a lot about music?
POSSIBLE MURDER SUSPECT: I don’t know a lot about anything, but I know a little about practically everything.
DETECTIVE: Yeah? Then why did you say they played Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Ninth at the concert Friday night? They changed the program at the last minute and played nothing but Sibelius.
Would either a Brahms First/Beethoven Ninth or an all-Sibelius concert have been given by any American orchestra in 1945? Probably not. But the dialogue gets the idea across quickly and clearly, with no muss or fuss. Besides, what other subculture do you expect to be gotten just right in the movies and on TV? Sports? Politics? The movies themselves, for Pete’s sake?
All right, enough analysis. Based on viewing the first two episodes, I found “Mozart in the Jungle” to be soapy, sexy, over-the-top fun, with lots of scenery-chewing and a few good classical jibes (e.g., the proposed marketing campaign for the young hot-shot conductor, clearly inspired by Gustavo Dudamel, featuring the slogan “Hear the Hair!”). Oh, and Bernadette Peters, too. And I think that for all its inauthenticity, it’s great for classical music to be presented in popular culture like this. Even if the bassoon in the adagio mistook her staccato for her sostenuto –ain’t that a real knee-slapper?