Tell-all comedy is the talk of symphony halls

Mozart In The Jungle cast (from far left) Gael Garcia Bernal, Bernadette Peters and Lola Kirke.
Mozart In The Jungle cast (from far left) Gael Garcia Bernal, Bernadette Peters and Lola Kirke.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • When Mexican actor Gael García Bernal won a Golden Globe last Sunday for his portrayal of an impetuous orchestra conductor in Mozart In The Jungle, television viewers were as stunned as he was.

Even more so when the Amazon comedy about the fictional New York Symphony, directed by Paul Weitz, edged out contenders such as Veep and Transparent for Best Comedy Series.

As actor Albert Brooks put it on Twitter after it won its second Golden Globe, "If Mozart In The Jungle wins any more awards, someone will have to see it".

But maybe the rest of the world is just catching up with New York's classical music enclave. For the past year, the show has been the talk of symphony halls, conservatory corridors and orchestra pits, mostly because it is based on the 2005 memoir written by Blair Tindall, a former New York City freelance oboist whom many musicians know or have heard about.

In her tell-all, Tindall, now 55, chronicled cocaine-fuelled late nights and freewheeling sexual high jinks among classical musicians in the 1980s and 1990s. The revelations were scandalous when published, in large part because the pseudonyms she used barely veiled her paramours. She burnt so many bridges then, it seemed the only people willing to embrace her worked in Hollywood.

Producers agonised over whether the show would reflect her singular experience or embrace a more contemporary New York sensibility. They arrived at something in between - a whimsical drama exploring a competitive world.

Musicians who have watched Mozart In The Jungle say it is slowly finding an audience here among the classical music crowd, who have been drawn to the affable García Bernal and the 20something oboist played by Lola Kirke, sister of Jemima Kirke from HBO comedy Girls. Bernadette Peters, a Broadway favourite, stars as the orchestra's manager.

The producers have hired New York musicians as on-screen extras, making for a fun peer-spotting exercise.

The second season has classical- world celebrity cameos, including musicians Joshua Bell and Lang Lang, and Grammy-winning pianist Emanuel Ax, who played the interactive video game Dance Dance Revolution at a dive bar during one episode. Gustavo Dudamel, the wunderkind Venezuelan conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, makes an appearance as a backstage handler.

"I've heard a lot of colleagues describe it as a guilty pleasure," said Lara St John, a Canadian-born violinist who has played with many of the major symphony orchestras. "But I don't see the guilt."

She has watched the show since its premiere in 2014 and said the overall story is compelling, despite a few artistic liberties.

"I too know people who do multiple gigs a night to make money," she said. "And we all know people like Pembridge", referring to an egomaniacal former conductor played by Malcolm McDowell.

But she conceded that she has the luxury of professional distance. "I'm not familiar with the people in the book, so it doesn't bother me."

Jason Schwartzman, one of the show's producers, said it was not trying to recreate New York in the 1980s, nor were they aiming for a documentary about Tindall's life.

Aids had a sweeping impact on the Broadway community at that time. And drug use and casual sex were prevalent. "Our show is not an adaptation, but the book is the touchstone for this whole thing," he said. "Blair's book was a moment when the sheen on classical music was lifted."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Tell-all comedy is the talk of symphony halls'. Print Edition | Subscribe