Classical fact vs. classical legend

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Said by newspaper editor Maxwell Scott (played by Carleton Young) to former U.S. senator and diplomat Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart), this line from the great John Ford/John Wayne film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was brought to mind recently by the vigorous debate over the veracity of a current screen depiction of a specific historical and cultural milieu.

Ava DuVernay’s controversial film “Selma?”  Well, that too.  I was actually thinking of the new Amazon Prime TV series “Mozart in the Jungle.”  You can read my previous entries on “MITJ” here and here.

A fictional portrayal of the current classical orchestral scene, based on oboist and journalist Blair Tindall‘s non-fiction book of the same name, MITJ has earned generally enthusiastic reviews from the critics, or at least from critics on the TV or general cultural beats.  Most of the classical musicians whose opinions I’ve seen in the cybersphere have had a pretty good attitude about the series’s obvious implausibilities and distortions, crediting MITJ with successfully getting at larger truths even if fudging the details.  Even some classical critics, normally a persnickety lot, have given MITV the thumbs-up, as you can see here, here and elsewhere.

But discouraging words regarding MITJ, while seldom heard, have not been inaudible.  The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s David Patrick Stearns was decidedly lukewarm in his review.  And the Washington Post‘s Anne Midgette has been particularly stern in her denunciations.  Probably the best on-line access is this rebuttal from violinist Lara St. John, complete with links to Midgette’s WaPo articles and, as a valuable bonus, a delicious back-and-forth between violinist and critic in the reply section.  Great stuff!

So where does the fact vs. legend quote come in?  Take another look at the critical articles by Stearns and Midgette.  While they cover different ground, each is basically a variation on the “truth is more interesting than fiction” song, as well sung by Stearns in his closing paragraphs:

Do you argue that TV characters have to be exaggerated to hold the screen? Well, their Philadelphia Orchestra counterparts are hardly boring. Violinist Davyd Booth has 80 tattoos, including his “Michelangelo special” – the fingers of God and Adam on his right foot. Violinist Phil Kates never met an earthquake zone that he didn’t try to cheer up with an impromptu recital. And what about the orchestra’s bungee jumping contingent led, during a recent tour stop in Macau, by tuba player Carol Jantsch?

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin isn’t even fazed by it all: “Who knows what they do in Philadelphia before they come to a concert?”

Put that in a mini-series. But would anybody believe it?

Actually, I believe that most viewers would believe these things, if a series like MITJ chose to include them in the plot.  Why wouldn’t they?  But what Stearns seems to want is not what MITJ set out to be.  He wants a reality show, but got a fictional series instead.  Given the right director and right participants, a classical reality show like that could be fun.  But would anyone want to see it?  That would be the $10,000,ooo (or whatever the budget is for such a show) question.

Of course, any fictional on-screen depiction of a particular milieu wants to be believable.  If the viewers find the proceedings unbelievable — to have “jumped the shark,” in TV parlance — they’ll tune out.  But here is where I differ from Stearns and Midgette.  In a fictional series, the creators’ principal responsibility is not to show the milieu it has chosen as it really is.  It is to entertain the audience.  And if the prerogatives of audience entertainment lead to distortions, exaggerations and outright fabrications, so be it.

I know that lots of classical professionals get a bit touchy about how their beloved art form is portrayed in the popular media, a touchiness that stems, as I see it, from not unjustified concerns about the music’s decreasing share in the cultural marketplace.  But just as few viewers would disbelieve the exploits of the Philadelphia musicians that Stearns cites in his article, I also bet that very few viewers imagine that MITJ is totally accurate in its depiction of the orchestral scene.  Let’s give the viewers a little more credit than that.

Now, when a journalist like fictional editor Maxwell Scott says “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” I’ve got a problem.  Indeed, one of my main gripes about contemporary journalism is the extent to which much of it proceeds from dubious assumptions and narratives that it accepts rather than continually questions.  In journalism, I prefer fact to legend, which I’m sure hardly makes me exceptional.

But in a fictional entertainment, if the legend is more entertaining than the facts, then the legend will almost always win out.  That’s show biz.  If Mozart in the Jungle can push classical music forward in the public’s consciousness even a little, it’s all good.  And that’s a fact you can print.

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