Considering the glut of musical competition reality series that have glutted the airwaves over the past decade (‘The Voice’ being only the most recent example) and all of the fairly recent series that have focused around singing (“Empire” and “Nashville” to name the more successful ones), it is rather appalling that there has been next to nothing involving classical music. (Perhaps PBS could consider a series of auditions for the Met and call them ‘American Soprano, ‘American Tenor’, etc.) Then late last year, Amazon debuted its series ‘Mozart in the Jungle’, a series based on the adventures of a fictional symphony in New York City. Despite this critic’s admiration for classical music in general, this series got passed over in this year’s reviews. Then it got nominated for two Golden Globes, including one for best Comedy or Musical. So I gave it a look.
“Mozart in the Jungle” takes place around the New York Symphony which, like so many orchestras in America, is in a time of upheaval. Veteran conductor Thomas Bainbridge ( Malcolm McDowell, very dry) is essentially shunted aside with an honorary title in favor of wunderkind Rodrigo (Golden Globe nominee Gael Garcia Bernal), something he doesn’t care for at all. Clearly desperate to reach out for a new audience (posters announcing Rodrigo are given the catchphrase ‘Hear The Hair’), the symphony remains stuck in the mess between implacable veteran musicians, demanding unions and general ennui. (Bainbridge is asked point blank in a podcast: “Is classical music dead?”)
Despite the clash between these two titans, most of the world of music is seen from a newcomer who desperately wants in. Haley Rutledge (Lola Kirke) is a brilliant oboist who has been struggling for the past few years to make the big time, wasting her talents in a rock opera version of ‘Oedipus’. It is clear from the Pilot that she may be a once in a generation talent at her instrument. She lands an audition for the New York Symphony with Rodrigo, but her arrival is met with utter disdain both from management (particularly Bernadette Peters, delightful as the head of the symphony) and symphony musicians, who basically assume she slept her way to get her. Her rehearsal of Mahler’s eighth symphony is a disaster, causing the oboe to fly from he hands, and she barely makes it for three hours. Under immense pressure when she comes back to symphony to pick up a check for $90, she explodes verbally about her frustrations with everything her life has brought her in general and Rodrigo in specific. It is a powerful moment, that is slightly negated when she manages to earn an internship, something that would seem more fitting to a film on the subject.
“Mozart in the Jungle” is far from perfect in the three episodes that this critic has seen. Admittedly, even for streaming television, this is a niche subject, but it seems rather silly to perforate the world of classical music of having as much sex as, say, a Shonda Rhimes series. (It’s still hard to figure out what role Saffron Burrows will play as the series unfolds) And it’s not clear whether show runners Paul Weitz, Jason Schwartzmann and Roman Coppola have a clear arc for this story now that it has been given a second season. But the truth is, this may be the best outlet classical music for accessibility for quite some time. The performances are engaging, the writing is witty, and its clear everybody has a clear admiration for what they’re doing. More than that, it demonstrates that Amazon, like its fellow streaming service Netflix, is far from a one hit wonder. It’s not a classic, but its far from bland.
My score: 3.75 stars.