Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

There’s a moment in the first episode of Mozart in the Jungle when the camera cuts to a lively party in progress at a spacious New York City apartment. Young people are scattered throughout the room, which is abuzz with chatting and drinking. One character scratches a record back and forth on a turntable before the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen begins to play over the speakers. Gleefully, the character shouts:

“Let’s get Biz-AYYY!”

It was then my suspicions were confirmed—this show was going to be a glorious mess.

The first season of Mozart in the Jungle dropped on Amazon Prime Video in December 2014. It continued for three more seasons before ending its run in 2018. Loosely based on Blair Tindall’s memoir of the same name, this fictional dramedy series follows the story of young oboist Hailey Rutledge (played by Lola Kirke) as she tries to make it in New York City’s vibrant and competitive classical music scene. Along the way, she must navigate musician egos, backstabbing, blackmailing, mounting expectations, and performance anxiety, not to mention lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Sounds fun, right?

Let’s call this one “Mozart in the Jungle out-of-context”

Whenever classical music appears in films or TV shows, the results are always a mixed bag. They either stretch the truth (as much as I adore Amadeus, it’s not the most historically-accurate portrait of Mozart or Salieri), present it as a symbol of the upper-class elite and/or notorious villains (hello, Mr. Bond), or just miss the mark entirely (nothing like trying to sell more Volvos with the music of an unhinged, manipulative mother who’s trying to get her daughter to kill someone). However, there are occasions when the media does get it right. (I’ve always been a fan of this iPad commercial starring Esa-Pekka Salonen.) So, the appearance of Mozart in Jungle sparked lots of excitement and trepidation in the classical community. Would the series finally get classical musicians—and the music itself—right for once?

Well, yes and no.

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Nine Symphonies

In 2015, the Southern California-based writer CK Dexter Haven posed the following question to the classical music blogosphere: “If you had to pick nine symphonies—no more, no less—by different composers to include as part of a proverbial desert island survival kit, what would they be?” This intriguing challenge quickly caught fire across the Interwebs as countless people weighed in with their own picks, ranging from KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen to New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Some found that their favorite symphonies naturally fit into each corresponding slot. Others found it much more difficult. (On Twitter, Brian Lauritzen appropriately called the task “fun/impossible.”)

Me making my “nine symphonies” list

Fast-forward five years later. The COVID pandemic has graciously provided loads more time to listen to music (there’s a bright side for ya!), so I decided that it was time to take on Dexter Haven’s challenge. Throughout the month of August, I listened to many different symphonies—ones I already knew and loved, others that were less familiar, and some that were completely new. After working my way through over 60 pieces (!!), I considered possible outcomes and drafted up my own “desert island survival kit” of nine completely different symphonies by nine completely different composers. And let me tell you, it was not exactly a walk in the park.

There were a few additional rules to this challenge. In his original blog post, Dexter Haven states the following:

  • “You can only pick one symphony per composer.
  • You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only. No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
  • Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).
  • Use only current numbering conventions; so if you were to pick the New World Symphony by Dvořák, you’d have to put it in the 9th Symphony spot, not the 5th Symphony where some folks 50 years ago may have put it.
  • Bonus point for including symphonies by composers who actually composed at least nine numbered symphonies.”

As you can see, this was an extremely tricky undertaking (and many, many wonderful symphonies got left out in the process), but it was loads of fun nonetheless and the perfect end-of-summer time waster. So, without further ado, here are my nine picks, followed by some additional thoughts at the end. Let’s do this…

1. William Walton: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor

For my opening slot, Walton’s First Symphony takes the crown (a rather appropriate metaphor for a British composer). This work is truly marvelous and sadly underplayed here in the States. It brims with both vivacity and heart-on-sleeve passion and features one of the quirkiest endings after Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Plus, this work has a special familial connection. While on the bus for a choir & orchestra tour in the 1980s, my dad first laid eyes on my mom while listening to the Symphony’s gorgeous third movement on his Walkman. They’ve been happily married ever since. Awwww…

Honorable Mentions: Shostakovich, Mahler, Brahms, Corigliano, Mendelssohn, Price, Mathias, Still

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“Bite-sized” Masterpieces

Want to hear to some great music but don’t have the time (or attention span) to sit down and listen to a whole opera or an hour-plus-long symphony? Have no fear! There are plenty of pieces of classical music out there that don’t take a Bruckner-sized chunk out of your day; works that are mere minutes long, in fact. (Interestingly, the French composer Darius Milhaud wrote three operas that are each around ten minutes long!) Here are a six of my favorite “bite-sized” masterpieces, all of which are self-contained works that are seven minutes or less (not movements from a longer piece). Overall, it’s only about twenty-five minutes of music total. That’s basically one episode of The Office!

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Mahler’s Symphony No. 3?

1. Igor Stravinsky: Greeting Prelude (1955)

Combine one of the most famous composers of the twentieth-century with one of the most famous tunes in the world and you get Igor Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude. Stravinsky composed this short orchestral arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in 1955, as an 80th birthday present for the French conductor Pierre Monteux (who had conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring back in 1913). Clocking in at less than a minute long, the Greeting Prelude is far from a straightforward adaptation. Stravinsky transforms this simple (and rather banal) melody into a brief showpiece for orchestra, full of wide leaps, unusual chords, and cheeky wit, resulting in a surprisingly amusing setting of the song that has been embarrassing birthday “guests of honor” for decades.

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