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A Jungle Stream

James M. Rohner | February 2018

    The letter came across my desk several years ago. It was a legal release from one of those  New York offices that spend their days assisting movie and television productions. In this case, they wanted to use copies of The Instrumentalist on screen in a new show about symphony members in a fictional New York orchestra. I doubted that New York symphony players read a magazine aimed at school directors, but I signed the form and hoped for the best. Months later, the show was released, and I started to worry a little.
    The new program was Mozart in the Jungle, based on a book by former New York Philharmonic principal oboe, Blair Tindall. The subtitle of the book was “Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music.” I asked a co-worker if she had watched any of the episodes. She remarked that the show was a little racy in spots. I hurried home and started binge-watching the first season. I was instantly charmed.
    The show follows the paths of two central characters: the orchestra’s new conductor Rodrigo de Souza and Hailey, a talented but fledgling oboist who dreams of playing in the orchestra but seems not to have a last name. Rodrigo a Mexican-born wunderkind, is loosely based on the Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. Rodrigo is brilliant but erratic and flighty. He has vivid daydreams and conversations with Beethoven and Bach, who sometimes appear in period dress. His predecessor, an aging veteran gently pushed out by management, won the hearts of the orchestra over many years. Rodrigo struggles at times to build loyalty from his musicians.
    Hailey is far more grounded and practical. She knows that making the orchestra is a long-shot, but follows her dream through tireless practice sessions and demoralizing private lessons with an older oboist in the orchestra who is threatened by the newcomer. Hailey faces the nagging question faced by so many musicians: Am I good enough? At one point she is asked if she is a bit of a masochist. She retorts, “Don’t you kind of have to be to play the oboe?”
    One entertaining part of the program is its look at the dire fundraising challenges faced by orchestras. A long-suffering board chairwoman is perpetually seeking a balance between older donors who loved the previous conductor and rich younger patrons who are drawn to unusual fundraisers and the quirky new conductor. She has bet the orchestra’s future on Rodrigo with little certainty about the outcome. This is especially true when a labor strike creates a bitter divide between musicians and management.
    Although the show has earned awards and acclaim, there has been some criticism. The efforts by the actors to hold and play their instruments correctly appear half-hearted at best. The plotting can prove as jumbled as Rodrigo’s darting thoughts. A story arc set in the opera world of Europe went on way too long. Despite the detours, the show always loops back to its goofy charms and unquenchable passion for music. There are enjoyable cameo appearances by pianists Lang Lang and Emanuel Ax and even Gustavo Dudamel himself. The moments of joy overwhelm periodic silliness.
    Mozart in the Jungle returns to Amazon Prime in early February for its fourth season. Its 30-minute episodes are a perfect way to spend a chilly winter weekend, and you can finish an entire season in about six hours. The show does include a dose of the promised sex and drugs. As for copies of The Instrumentalist onscreen, I am still waiting.