Why “Mozart in the Jungle” Makes a Mockery of Classical Music

If you possess an Amazon Prime account, you are likely aware that one of Amazon’s most critically acclaimed original shows is returning, just before Christmas, for a second season. While I won’t tell you not to watch something that you find genuinely entertaining, please understand that watching “Mozart in the Jungle” will teach you as much about the life of a classical musician as “Jurassic World” will teach you about velociraptor behavior, size and general appearance. “Mozart in the Jungle” is utter fiction/fantasy and I’ll be devastated if you tell me it has in any way shaped your understanding of what being a classical musician is really like. Because I am a person with a degree in classical instrumental music, I found that season one was (how shall I say this?…) blasphemously abominable. I will confess I only made it through the first two episodes, but that was enough to bombard me with nonsense.

It’s worthy to note that “Mozart in the Jungle”is rife with serious acting talent. Bernadette Peters plays Gloria, the head of the symphony board, Malcolm McDowell is Thomas, the conductor who is reluctant to retire, and Gael García Bernal is the young, incoming conductor. I have admired all three actors for years. The show’s musical world is often seen through the lens of aspiring orchestral oboist Hailey, played by Lola Kirke. I’m sure she’s not without talent, but here she is guilty from the very first line of the series for delivering the nonsense.

1. If You Have a Teacher Who Tells You This, Find a New Teacher

The series begins with Kirke’s Hailey giving an oboe lesson to an adolescent boy who clearly has a crush on her. Okay, that’s fine, except the first thing she tells him is to breathe in through his nose and out his mouth, “Just like I taught you”. Here’s a free music lesson for anyone wanting to take up playing a wind instrument: THAT IS BAD ADVICE. Almost every new voice student I take on tells me in their first lesson that they have “breathing problems”. Seeing as not a one of them was dragging along a ventilator when they said that, the problem usually gets fixed the moment I encourage them to breathe in and out of their mouth. Your body isn’t actually designed to mix and match breathing locations. We generally choose, perhaps unknowingly, either our noses or our mouths. Observe your breathing as you read this and you’ll likely find that to be true. Because the “wrong”way is slightly more complicated, I’m sure the writers thought it sounded real smart and stuff.

2. Clearly, No One Researched Anything in Preparation for His/Her Role

Serious actors are known for engulfing themselves in the study of whatever craft they’re representing on stage or in film. That’s part of why “Rocky” is so good. Sylvester Stallone trained to be a boxer in order to portray a boxer – makes sense to me. However, it is clear (or at least presumable from the results) that neither Bernal nor McDowell spent any time whatsoever researching how to conduct and it is possible neither man has ever been to a symphonic concert. If you don’t already know, there are basic time-based patterns which every conductor uses to indicate the beat. The expressiveness that comes from the conductor is generally within the context of those patterns. The men who play conductors in “ Mozart in the Jungle” must have been told to wave their arms around in reckless abandonment, for that is all they do and they look like complete idiots doing so. I remember my first college conducting class, when I was reminded that my ictus was much too high. An ictus is the imaginary plane upon which a conductor’s hands hit beat one in any time signature. Obviously, these guys never took that class, seeing as their respective hands are always above their shoulders and they have no ictus whatsoever. They would both fail college conducting class. There is a montage early on of Bernal’s singularly-named “Rodrigo” conducting wildly, apparently to show how amazing he is. The only thing he does amazingly is give his impression of a clown having a seizure in the middle of an interpretive dance routine.

3. No, We Don’t Do That

At one point in the show, Hailey is at a lively music nerd party where she is in a drinking game face-off with a flautist. The idea is that they spin a dial and have to play whichever orchestral woodwind excerpt is indicated and take a shot if their performance is not up to snuff. Dozens of other classical music nerds watch them with bated breath. Let me clear something up once and for all. I am a classical music nerd and I have been to countless music nerd parties. If this game had ever broken out at any of them, I would have swiftly taken my leave. That was never necessary, since no one I have ever met thinks this sounds like a fun party. No one. At all.

On a side note, I can’t think of a single woodwind player who cleans his or her instrument with a wet wipe, the way Hailey “cleans” her oboe. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any instrument of an kind that should be cleaned that way. So no, we don’t do that, either.

4. That’s Not How Auditions Work

Perhaps the most egregious misconception perpetuated by “Mozart in the Jungle” is the method by which the writers and producers think section players are hired to play in an orchestra. Let’s first consider the reality that virtually all major American orchestras are made up of union musicians, which is mentioned when Peters’s board chair, Gloria discusses the struggle to play the musicians more under the modern financial constraints an orchestra faces. The existence of that union means that they would typically be protected from some imbecile, who learned how to conduct from Bugs Bunny, declaring he’s going to overhaul the various sections of the orchestra in one fell swoop. The vast majority of the time, when new players are auditioned, they are selected for the spot based on factors such as how well they blend in with the current section. It’s frequently considered how much he or she sounds like the principal player, so that if said principal were to be ill for a performance, the assistant can be promoted for the night with little impact. In the show, Hailey auditions to be an auxiliary oboist for the season (in this case, an additional player needed for one Mahler symphony). Now let me tell you about the greatest work of fiction on this show. If you were to show up late for an orchestral audition, especially one to which you were not formally invited, you will not be awarded with the job. But that’s exactly what happens on “Mozart in the Jungle”. Hailey arrives too late to audition (because she wasn’t asked to be there), but whips out the old double-reed and plays to the empty room, just ‘cuz. Rodrigo conveniently hears her from the wings and is blown away by her passion as a soloist. Keep in mind, she is not auditioning to be a soloist and sticking out as an over-emoter in the oboe section would be a great detriment as an auxiliary player.

It’s true that passion, even reckless passion, plays a part in creating great music. Music is an art form and, as with all art forms, requires great creativity. That doesn’t mean that all musicians are extroverted volcanos of emotion with no regard for anything else. Many orchestral musicians have multiple degrees, often doctorates, in music and are experts in the expanse of their field. They are well versed not just in the technical mastery of their instruments, but also in music theory, pedagogy, music history and an array of other things. Shows like “Mozart in the Jungle” diminish what it truly means to be a classical musician and it is a shame that everyone involved is critically applauded for the unintentional parody they’ve produced.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *