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Sex, drugs, and classical music

By Christa Caggiano

Section: Arts

February 14, 2014

Sex, drugs and classical music are three terms not often used together. Yet Amazon emblazons all three across their promo for their new video pilot, “Mozart in the Jungle,” making for a surprisingly stellar show.

“Mozart in the Jungle” hinges the on the New York classical music scene, arguably the highest echelon of classical music. It is a world that requires a ridiculous amount of practice. High school students vying for a spot at one of the top conservatories, such as Juilliard or the New England School of Music, typically spend four to five hours a day perfecting relatively minute details of a piece. Sometimes, students will take a gap year before conservatory in order to devote themselves to 24/7 practice. The truly great musicians spend thousands of hours a year in a practice room and start from an extremely young age.

Once they emerge from conservatory, musicians face a harsh reality. There is a finite number of instrumentalists who can be in an orchestra and an even more finite number of orchestras we, as a culture, support. So musicians forge on, continuing to practice while freelancing, waiting for a more permanent gig.

On its veneer, classical music is not sexy. “Mozart in the Jungle” steps in to change this conception, digging to classical music’s core. Originally a memoir by the oboist Blair Tindall, it chronicles the dysfunction experienced in an esoterically passionate subculture. Tindall’s version of this dysfunction perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with classical music today. She is faced with abusive teachers, sexism, hopelessly declining career perspectives and an unanticipated amount of drunken sex. Somehow, this makes for addictively good television.

The show opens with a scene of Joshua Bell—the famous violinist who is somewhat undeservingly renowned for his looks as much as his talent—playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. It is splendid and magnificent, everything that classical music is supposed to be. Nevertheless, the great moments come after the final cadence. There is tense dialogue between Bell and the conductor. Classical music is nothing if not catty. Another layer of tension is added when the aging conductor of the New York Philharmonic is replaced with a rather attractive, young Spaniard. This brilliantly reflects the current tide of the classical music: desperate attempts to be relevant and fresh. Still, the New York Philharmonic’s audience, themselves mostly senior citizens, clap on, unaware of any unrest.

The gritty parts begin after Hailey, the show’s main character based off Tindall, rushes to a job playing in the pit orchestra of some kitschy Greek musical. She looks quietly discontented, as she should. Women similar to Hailey spend years of their lives training for jobs they will never get, leaving them unfulfilled and frustrated. It is refreshing to see the classical music world portrayed for what it really is. It is especially heartening to see Hailey (Lola Kirke) act realistically. Television has glamorized surgery, murder and high school; it is nice to see something real.

“Mozart in the Jungle” arrives at the sex and drugs with the introduction of Cynthia, the second cellist of the New York Philharmonic. She is probably the sexiest cellist in existence, real or fictional. A dead ringer for Sofia Vergara, she wears a dress with a slit up to her thigh and flamboyantly red lipstick. Cynthia humorously relates tales of sex with musicians—disappointedly quick sex with a violinist, lewd sex on a timpani with a percussionist and an “improvisatory” three-way with a jazz pianist. There is allusion to Cynthia’s sexual relationship with the conductor, an occurrence that is more frequent than one may care to imagine in the classical music world.

After Cynthia leaves, Hailey goes home to participate in what is perhaps the best party scene I have ever seen on screen. It is a party full of musicians, which is bound to get nerdy. There are bongs attached to metronomes and Bizet DJs on a victrola. My personal favorite part of this scene is a drinking game turned instrument showdown. Without exaggeration, this game consists of taking shots and then playing classical music on your instrument of choice. In this case, a sassy flutist challenges Hailey, who is a supreme oboist. I particularly respect that all the actors are relatively well-trained on the instruments they play. As an oboist myself, I believe that Hailey really plays the oboe, lending a degree of authenticity and forethought to a show that could otherwise be a disaster. The realness of this show coupled with the sheer nerdiness of it makes it a surprisingly watchable show. I believe it could be relevant to a wide range of audiences, musical or otherwise, and I would highly recommend it.

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