I just finished reading Mozart in the Jungle, a salacious and often tabloid-like book by oboist and journalist Blair Tindall about her years trying to make it in the classical orchestral world of New York City in the eighties and nineties.
It was, honestly, one of those fascinating books I couldn’t stop reading but now that I’m done can’t quite decide if I liked or not. She shifted on a dime between her autobiographical memoir-like stories and some pretty heavy-on-the-statistics journalism about the whole rise of the professional symphony orchestra, where the money comes from, where it goes, and who gets it. The autobiographical portions illustrate clearly who does not get it most of the time–the players themselves.
The autobiographical bits also become like that clichéd car crash you can’t look away from–I know a lot of professional musicians, but no one I know (at least to my knowledge) does or did quite the level of drinking, drugs, and bed-hopping that seemed to be the norm for her life and that of those she hung with. I mean, she was falling into bed with a new guy on each page, it seemed for a while there. Admittedly, as one who came of age in the AIDS era, I have to acknowledge that she grew up a decade before me and leaped into that world yet another decade younger as a talented high schooler, and that the entire concept of a world where sex and drugs had the luxury of being about propriety and not you-could-die-from-one-wrong-encounter is alien to me. (And I was pretty sheltered anyway.) Still. Personally, this woman seemed to be a self-absorbed train wreck, with zero self-esteem and a whole lot of self-destructive set-in patterns. (Like when she was sleeping, sort of at the same time, with all three of the potential oboists who could contract her for the various freelance groups, and was surprised when things came to a head and she lost not only all three men but also all her employment prospects. Like she’d never seen it coming. I’m like, seriously?) This kind of thing kind of kept happening one way or the other until she up and got out of the classical music and broadway pit world.
(And when I looked her up to see what she has been up to since the book came out, I see she was apparently dating Bill Nye the Science Guy, and they sort of got married, but it turned out it wasn’t legal, and now they are broken up and he has restraining orders and lawsuits on her because she poured weedkiller on his roses. Or something. So it does not appear that career change resulted in increased life-stability or better life-partner choices.) (UPDATE: see the comments; one commenter offers a Blair-sided version of the tale which makes a lot more sense than the version you find on most websites.)
But the thing about the whole orchestral financial system–It’s a perspective I admit I hadn’t considered, enmeshed in this world as I am: cities supposedly have symphony orchestras and other arts programs to enrich the lives of the community. To get increased quality from the performers, and to manage the high levels of money that have to move around, there are soloists, conductors, and administrators who demand high levels of compensation. This compensation comes from federal funding and wealthy donors who are desperate to offset some of their income with donations for tax purposes. Meanwhile, audience interest wanes and the ticket prices required to cover all the expenses of such concerts get so high that most of the “community” the orchestra is theoretically there to serve can’t afford to purchase them. It’s this big circular mess. (I’ll be classy and not use the word I was thinking.) And meanwhile, most of the players are getting shafted, and the ones without union protection get even more shafted. And job satisfaction is low. So…it’s quite the conundrum.
But anyway, the book–I’d definitely recommend it, if only to have other people to talk with about it. There were definite moments when I wanted to stop and argue with her about her facts, figures, and the conclusions she drew from them. There were other moments when I was like, “Okay, wow. Never thought of it that way, never thought to even ask that question.”
So…let me know if you read it!
(Amazon Prime also made a pilot for a TV series “based on” it–no relationship at all except that the main character is an oboist, from what I can tell. And the guy playing the hot young maestro is hot and young but desperately needs a conducting coach, because he looks ridiculous. Essentially it looked like “Smash” but about symphony orchestras. I don’t think it’s been picked up for a season, but I enjoyed the pilot. You can watch it for free.) (another UPDATE: It has apparently been picked up for 10 episodes. Please, please get Bernal a coach…)