Mozart in the Jungle: A Show About Making It and Finding Love in NYC... Oh and Classical Music

Spoiler alert | ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ reveals that the private lives of classical musicians can be just as entertaining as those of rock stars.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola Kirke in a scene from season two of 'Mozart in the Jungle.'
Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola Kirke in a scene from season two of 'Mozart in the Jungle.'Credit: Amazon Studios
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

In the good old days (sometime in 1968) Andy Warhol coined the saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” It turns out now – which for him was the future – that there was either a lot of time on the hands of his clock, or he was a wild optimist. While he was ruminating on elusive fame and the precise number of minutes, we live in a world where everyone clamors for mere attention and its span is measured in seconds. Not so long ago, in 2000, the average attention span of the average TV viewer was supposedly 12 seconds; if a program didn’t grab your interest in that time, you’d zap away from it. Today, recent studies show, the average attention span is 8 seconds, which means that most of you are no longer reading this column.

If you are, you will probably like “Mozart in the Jungle,” a series produced by Amazon Studios; it recently won the Golden Globe Award both for best series and best male actor in a series (Gael Garcia Bernal). It is refreshingly non-violent, non-mysterious (no spoiler alert), and takes its time in telling a moderately paced story of a fictional New York Symphony Orchestra, its conductors (one is disgruntled and retiring, the other an exciting and quirky newcomer); its players (with their wild dedication to music, their instruments and their egos); and its board of directors (with their egos, funds and vested and invested interests). In an era that likes its TV fare to sound forte and allegro, this series thrives on subito piano and moderato cantabile. But you don’t have to be versed in the terminology of classical music to enjoy it, because it presents that highbrow, elitist milieu in very human terms.

“Mozart in the Jungle” is being offered to TV viewers, both in the U.S. and Israel, in a relatively new fashion. It is no longer programmed or scheduled for us, but streamed on the Internet to all (for a price) by Amazon. We can acquire and watch it at our leisure, with a whole season released in one batch. Season one went online, all 10 episodes of it, in December 2014, and season two was released on December 30, 2015, shortly before the Golden Globe Awards ceremony. In Israel it can also be viewed on the relatively new Cellcom TV service, where you must subscribe to access a choice of programs. In February, it will also be offered on HOT VOD. You can see it – without commercial breaks! – at your leisure, as I did over one weekend: two seasons, 20 episodes of 28 minutes each, a binge lasting about 10 hours.

This photo provided by Amazon Studios shows Gael Garcia Bernal as Rodrigo in a scene from season two of 'Mozart in the Jungle.'Credit: AP

It all started with a 2005 book by a female oboe player, Blair Tindall, entitled “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music,” which was partly a memoir and partly a study of the world of classical music, showing that the world of classical music rocks. The TV series manages to make this world accessible to audiences who usually zap away when they hear classical music emanating from the screen. It tells the story of idealistic individuals and highlights the problem of classical music, which has been losing money for 500 years, and therefore is dependent on sponsorship, either public or corporate – with those providing the funds eager to bend the tunes to their taste.

A decade in the making

The creative power behind the series is the actor, producer and writer Jason Schwartzman, who had been trying to turn Tindall’s book into a TV series for more than a decade. Finally, together with his cousin Roman Coppola (the son of Francis Ford) he managed to get Amazon to buy the pilot, commission a half season and then a full season, which led to a second one, and the Golden Globe Awards.

The story of the lives of classical musicians is told through the eyes of Hailey Rutledge, an aspiring young female oboe player, who tries – and manages – to become a part of the orchestra, which is struggling financially and artistically. She is played by Lola Kirke, who is a pleasure to watch on-screen with her sweet and innocent, yet very self-assured and level-headed, charm. The character of the new, “exotic,” Mexican-born maestro Rodrigo de Souza (played by the Mexican-born Bernal) is based on the wildly successful Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel (who makes a cameo appearance in the series’ first season). Other world-famous musicians appear in the series as themselves; they include the violinist Joshua Bell and the pianists Lang Lang and Emmanuel Ax.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola Kirke in a scene from season two of 'Mozart in the Jungle.'Credit: Amazon Studios

The character of the chairperson of the orchestra’s board is played by Bernadette Peters, a famous star of Broadway musicals. Malcolm McDowell of “A Clockwork Orange” fame plays the retiring conductor, Thomas Pembridge, with verve and daring, and Saffron Burrows plays Cynthia, a cellist who knows how to use her bow to play on the emotions (and bodies) of her fellow players of both sexes, on the concert stage and on the TV screen.

Season two of “Mozart in the Jungle” has the orchestra locked out of their auditorium by the board, which has refused the players’ contract demands. Hailey is leaving for an European tour, and Rodrigo is divorced from his violinist wife (Nora Arnezeder) and in love with Hailey. He has thrown in his lot with the orchestra, conducting them in an impromptu concert in Central Park, with Peters and McDowell watching. It all has the distinct sound of season three.