Thursday, January 01, 2015

Culture Shock 01.01.15: Mozart on your television

Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo in Amazon's "Mozart in the Jungle."
I blame public radio.

For most of us, our only exposure to classical music on the radio dial comes from public radio, where the hosts — no one calls them "disc jockeys" — speak of the music they serve up in the hushed, reverential tones that have become public radio's most identifiable and risible trait.

If classical music has a reputation in the English-speaking world for being stodgy and largely irrelevant to the culture at large, and believe me it does, then those whose job it is to promote the art haven't helped matters.

The name is a bad enough handicap to overcome: "classical music." That alone says, "old, moldy and not relevant to my interests."

Performers, composers and conductors feel the passion in what they do, but most of their potential audience does not. We're a long way from the 1913 Paris debut of Igor Stravinsky's sensuously scandalous "The Rite of Spring," which so inflamed its audience that the performance ended in a riot.

Imagine that: a ballet riot. Today, we reserve that sort of passion for sporting events.

All that is why it's such a pleasant surprise took a chance on "Mozart in the Jungle." The first, 10-episode season of the half-hour comedy series, set amid New York City's classical music scene, dropped on the Amazon Prime streaming service just before Christmas.

The series is produced by Roman Coppola ("Moonrise Kingdom"), Jason Schwartzman ("Rushmore") and Alex Timbers, and inspired by Blair Tindall's memoir "Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music." As the book's subtitle so desperately conveys, this isn't your typical, stuffy classical music. Tindall's memoir is about young prodigies living away from home for the first time and taking full advantage of their newfound freedom.

The Amazon series is more circumspect. It begins with our Tindallesque heroine, Hailey (Lola Kirke), pursuing an open tryout with the fictional New York Symphony and ending up instead as assistant to the symphony's young, brash and charismatic new conductor, Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal of "Y Tu Mamá También").

While "Mozart in the Jungle" is structured around Hailey's attempts to balance working for Rodrigo, mastering the oboe and having a boyfriend (Peter Vack), it's the other members of the orchestra family who most command our interest. Over the course of 10 episodes, what could be just a one-note collection of sitcom supporting players grows on us, both as characters and people. Well, except for Dee Dee (John Miller), who starts out as the old hippie percussionist and pretty much stays the old hippie percussionist. But that's old hippies for you.

Saffron Burrows is Cynthia, a star cellist who is having an affair with Malcolm McDowell's Thomas, the outgoing conductor who has been relegated to a ceremonial "emeritus" position. And Broadway mainstay Bernadette Peters plays the symphony's president, whose main job is to keep the financially beleaguered institution's donations flowing in.

In trying to bring life back to the New York Symphony, Rodrigo faces the same problems that face the real world of classical music. When he gives Hailey a shot at trying out, it's because he values passion ("the blood," he calls it) over technical proficiency. Rodrigo's struggle to revive classical music, which Bernal makes our struggle, too, propels the series. The backstage shenanigans are secondary. Rodrigo sexes up classical music more than the sex does, as he confronts the ridiculous union rules and donor galas that become the comedic obstacles in the way of his creating something special, something that might connect with a larger audience.

Funny, sometimes quirky and glamorously shot, especially when Coppola is in the director's chair, "Mozart in the Jungle" is more than an entertaining comedy, although it is that. It's the best publicity classical music has had possibly since the Parisians rioted over Stravinsky.

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