Mozart in the Jungle–worth the read?

mozart-in-jungle-sex-drugs-classical-music-blair-tindall-paperback-cover-artI 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…)



  • Ocetiwin

    As to the Bill Nye part, most of what you read is what comes from him and his publicist. He is a bigger name than she is, so mostly HIS side of the story came out. He romanced her, whirlwind style, and swept her off her feet…after what she’s been through, I could see why she’d be so flattered. But, it turns out, there was a darker side to this. She also had a better credit rating than he did, so he asked her to buy a house with him. She worked at fixing that house, figuring they’d be man and wife, sharing their cute little house together, etc. He surprises her (and the rest of us, since he’s an avowed atheist) with a surprise wedding done by ‘celeb’ pastor Warren. When she went to actually move into the house, he stopped her. Told her the marriage wasn’t valid, and hey, ‘we’re over’. She nurtured that garden, he broke her heart. What person that gets their heart broken doesn’t somewhere want revenge? The topper? Seeing him on TV talking to his neighbour about the ‘green revolution’ type stuff, plucks one of her roses, hands it to the neighbour’s wife, and says wistfully that he wishes he had someone to give the rose. That is why she decided to kill those roses SHE planted. Not uncommon for the ‘woman scorned’. He happened to catch her, and WAY over-dramatized it (ask anyone he worked with in Seattle about his tendency to do that, his inflated sense of self-importance). She also found papers where he’d written that she’d fallen in deeply in love with him, ‘like they always do’, but that she wasn’t good enough…not smart enough, athletic enough, pretty enough, or a good enough dancer. He has also managed to have her barred from going to any swing club in LA, because he might want to go there. And then, though he now has millions, sues her for court costs, etc. He sends PIs out regularly to hunt her down, including to her then-newly-widowed mother’s house. It just pisses me off when people reiterate his side of the story, painting her as a psycho. No one is perfect, let alone perfectly mentally stable, and when someone does something so vile to you, especially if perhaps you didn’t have the best self-esteem to begin with (nowhere in the music industry is anyone safe from being one-upped by someone else willing to sleep with someone, it’s not safe for the mind…any genre), you can imagine how a person might react.

    • chickwithastick

      Interesting! Thanks for all that, and I figured there had to be another side to the story, and even the side I did see made it sound a lot like Bill was maybe being a monumental jerk (lawsuits and restraining orders? for flowers?). From what you say it sounds like he’s being even more of a jerk than one would realize from the “out there” versions of the story. I was just sad to hear about this mess, when by the end of the book it had seemed like she was breaking out of the old patterns and doing new things, and a reader could pretend it was over and there would now be a Happy Ending…and yeah, while one the one hand I thought she seemed like a train wreck, I also sort of liked her, and recognized people I know in her. Weren’t we all train wrecks in our twenties?

      Anyway, thanks for the counterpoint!

    • Premilla LeSoeur

      It is so obvious that Tindall wrote the first reply.

      • chickwithastick

        Could be. It read to me more like a girlfriend or family member. But it’s fair to hear the other side.

        Note that in my post I didn’t dump on her for being crazy or killing the roses, I just noted that her pattern of choosing-and-being-chosen-by-guys-who-turn-out-to-be-jackasses appears to remain beyond the ditching of what for her was a miserable and mind-numbing orchestral career. Which is, of course, better than BEING one of the jackasses, and I will certainly never look at the Science Guy the same way again.

        (This also, in retrospect, reads a bit like victim-blaming, which is unacceptable and for which I apologize to all women, and to Ms. Tindall should she come across this. So for the record: that the string of guys behind her were jerks, not her fault, it’s not like any of us have that huge a pool to look in. That she at one point recognized that her life was a mess and did something to change it, admirable and pretty cool. That she wrote an unflinching account of her life that didn’t sugarcoat anything, including her own screwups, incredibly courageous. That she didn’t have a girlfriend around to consult before going over and killing the roses, unfortunate.)

        • Maya and Jessica

          We post only as a pair. We feel it is naive to believe that attending Juilliard alone ensures success. We, Maya and Jessica who post only as a pair, feel it was unsavory at best to expose this so-called “science fellow. ” One feels, that is, WE feel, that there are many beautiful selections and solos and what have you for the oboe. Perhaps the authoress, we feel, would do well to focus on those. Take a few tones on the oboe! say we.

          • Brett Sigmund

            I really like that kind of comment, Maya. And you, too, Jessica. I’d like to read more of your joint postings. Where can I find them? Lots of people shouldn’t post alone.

        • Ann Gass

          I like your original review very much–like how you’re honest about not quite knowing what to think of it all. I have to agree with Premilla, though, that it’s clear the oboist wrote the long reply because she has access to thoughts and feelings only the oboist would know about, and she doesn’t ever say as people would normally “she told me that she felt…” She slips into 2nd person, so then we almost expect her to blurt out “I did it!” I mean once you’ve been the boyfriend of a celebrity oboist and then duped into a fake marriage by a televangelist you feel pretty bad when someone ruins your roses. You think I want to get out of this marriage thank god I’m am atheist and Rick Warren isn’t licenced to perform marriages! I mean, I’m just guessing. How would I know? I don’t even have that show anymore.

  • Amy Bagnall

    I agree with you Stick, on the point that the book was one I could not put down.

    I love the show, and I can’t wait to watch more episodes. (They actually have turned it into a series.)

    Thanks for blogging about one of my favorite books!

    • chickwithastick

      Oh, I’m glad–horrific conducting aside, I’ll look forward to seeing it. Thanks for stopping by! (And I’ll have to re-read the book…like I said, I couldn’t quite decide if I liked it or not, which for me is often a sign that I’ll keep going back again and again…thanks for the up-vote for it.)

    • Timofy Church

      Isn’t “Amy Bagnall” just an anagram of “Blair Tindall”?

      • Amy Bagnall

        lol I think there are a few letter missing there…
        But I assure you that we look nothing alike.

        • Joyce Prentice

          Yes, but it still might be an anagram for “tannis root.” Or Adrian Marcato.

          • Amy Bagnall

            While I certainly appreciate the attempts to make different words out of the letters of my name- my name is just that – my late Mom chose my first name and I took my husband’s last name. I don’t really understand why the fascination with a comment I left in a blog about a book I read. ???

    • Gail Galbraith Braithwaite

      Hi. Oh gosh. You shouldn’t feel bad about that. You just happen to have a name that lends itself well to anagrams. You’re a good person, and people can tell.

      • Samford and Cynthia Owmbre

        My wife and I agree, Gail. It’s not that someone is “fascinated”by Amy’s comments in some sort of bad way. Amy just has a great way with words and added a lot to the discussion. She’ll go far in blogging if only she can keep up the good work. Neat!

  • Joyce Prentice

    Clearly they are. We know who y’are!

  • Ocetiwin

    No, that first comment was NOT Blair. I know many people who worked with Bill in Seattle, and while they were still working with him, would only say he was ‘mercurial’. Later, they basically told me what an ASS he was to everyone. HE went to Cornell, so he was so much smarter and better than everyone! They absolutely cannot stand him.

  • Joyce Prentice

    The Ocetiwin comments are by Blair. I used to work with her in Seattle and she would post stuff under that name all the time. I worked with Bill, too, and he was a sweetheart. Thanks

  • chickwithastick

    (Wouldn’t it be funny if Ocetiwin really WAS Blair, and Joyce was the Nye Guy? You saw it here first, folks…;-) )

  • Premilla, Ann, Joyce, this really is Blair Tindall. I’m also not Ocetiwin, and did not meet or even hear of Bill until 2005.

    Joyce, exactly where did we work together in Seattle? I never lived in Seattle and have only been there twice, for a total of four days or so. I’ve never worked there. I do not comment negatively online about Bill Nye — in fact, this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned him online at all, and most certainly didn’t write that first post, although I think I know who did — and even that woman is someone I have never met in person but only know from Facebook. I wrote about Bill and the marriage situation once — in my response to his declaration in the court papers, which are available online to anyone as a public record. I have a 10-episode TV series in the works and hardly have time for this sort of nonsense.

    “Maya and Jessica,” when I wrote Mozart in the Jungle, I had never even heard of Bill Nye, much less met him. So he was not in the book. Also, I didn’t go to Juilliard as you suggested, and I had a very successful music career with an excellent anyway.

    The book was a memoir — if you don’t fess up to your own shortcomings, it’s difficult to expect someone to slog through your story. I made myself into more of a character than I am to keep the dramatic arc going. The book was meant primarily to illustrate the rise of culture in late 20-th century America, not as a tell all. The memoir portion was an afterthought to a LOT of research, to make the book more readable, show what this progress looked like from the inside, and make it more appealing to film and TV producers.

    As for the original review, I’m all for thoughtful discussion, criticism and argument from people who have gone to the trouble of actually reading it. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and I have no problem with that — I encourage it. Thank you for taking the time to review it, ChickWithAStick!

  • Update: the conducting coaches for the television show included Ransom Wilson.

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