Art during Austerity: On “Mozart in the Jungle”


Aaron Bady over at The LA Review of Books:

When I first saw the TV show, I loved it. The first season is perfectly balanced between individual stories (the story of Hailey, the young oboe player who gets her shot at the big time; the story of Gael Garcia Bernal’s hotshot conductor Rodrigo, brought in to save the NYSO) and the story of the larger thing of which they are all a part: the orchestra, the music. As Hailey and Rodrigo enter the orchestra from opposite ends — the bottom and the top — we get an upstairs-downstairs picture of the institution, and at the same time, we are invited to consider the value of an undervalued art. In its first season, Mozart was essentially Slings and Arrows, the story of a group of players who must constantly, loudly, and insistently declare that the show must go on, because the people they must convince are themselves, because it’s anything but clear that it can, and because they are the ones who must put their asses and livelihoods on the line, day after day, night after night. Their belief, their faith, and their gamble are the only things that make the show go on: the only certainty is that if they stopped saying it, it wouldn’t. And so, the conductor, musicians, and staff of the orchestra all have to keep insisting that they are New York’s orchestra — that they are our orchestra, your orchestra to keep the ship above water, and to counteract the worrying realization that no one seems to want them very much. Their audience is aging and dying, their patrons are more interested in cultural capital than in the music, and true lovers of their art are few and far between (and usually broke). Orchestras are expensive and tickets are hard to sell; the orchestra’s main audience seems to be itself while Roderigo DeSouza struggles to live up to the expectations of the ghost of Mozart.

The conclusion to the first season is superbly and powerfully crafted: the show, it turns out, goes on, but only once a few illusions are shed. The conductor must become a member of the orchestra; individual themes must be subordinated for the good of the music. At its best, it turns out, it isn’t about you. It’s about the music.

But the more I think about Tindall’s book, the more I realize how rose-colored that idealism ultimately is. The show not only makes classical music seem fun and sexy, and occasionally dangerous, but it draws you into its idealism, the abiding faith of its musicians that the thing itself is not only enough, on its own, but that it’s the only thing that matters. And this is exactly the passion for the music that the industry uses to keep itself going, and which keeps, in turn, its most exploited workers and musicians in their place.

More here.