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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A Playlist for Christmas

A Playlist for Christmas

Another holiday season is upon us, and with that comes a wealth of season-appropriate music. (Some good and some not so good. Here’s looking at you, Bob Dylan, and your Christmas album. Yikes.) The sacred realm, in particular, contains an absolute treasure trove of works that honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus. So much of this music has played an indispensable role in my life, and the season is not complete until I’ve given at least one listen to John Adams’s El Niño and Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, to name just two pieces.

To celebrate this time of year, me and my good friend/fellow music nerd, Geoff Nelson, have culled together a playlist that journeys through the story of Christmas, beginning with the longings of Advent and ending with hope for the new year. As with our Holy Week playlist this past March, our selections encompass a broad spectrum of styles and sounds, often wandering between them in unique and surprising ways. (Who knew that Palestrina and The Oh Hellos actually work really well together?) The playlist can also be approached in different ways. Since it is 31 tracks long, it can either be used as a sort of musical “Advent calendar” (i.e., listening to one track each day throughout the 31 days of December), or it can be consumed in a single sitting.

No matter how you approach it—and no matter your faith background—we sincerely hope that our musical selections will inspire reflection, hope, and joy as the world celebrates this holiday season.

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Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

This is the fourth and final installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the previous parts here, here, and here.

On December 20, 1973, Aaron Copland made a guest appearance on the public television series Day at Night. Within this wide-ranging and lively discussion, one particularly fascinating exchange occurs when the interviewer, James Day, inquires about Copland’s contemporary musical language:

James Day: Why can’t you write in the language of the past?

Aaron Copland: It wouldn’t be natural! Why should we limit ourselves? We have rhythms that Chopin never thought of…. We have a more complex language in one way, a more dissonant language which can express harsh feelings in a more effective way, I think. The language of music is really, you know, advanced with the times and our listeners have to lend their ears in that way.

Day at Night – James Day and Aaron Copland, 1973 (4:57)

While this sentiment sounds great on paper, getting listeners to successfully “lend their ears” to a new piece of music is often easier said than done. As the classical canon began to take hold of Western thinking in the mid-to-late 19th century, a large swath of listeners, critics, and performers grew to prefer music that they already knew and loved—that is, older music instead of newer music. Of course, new pieces continued to be written and performed, but audiences by and large clamored for the familiar, not the new. Plus, anything new had to either fit in with the canonic “mold” or risk derision for being too “out there.”

This fixation on the past continued to dominate concert hall programming throughout the 20th century and persists even to this day. Why is that? On the one hand, we need to keep in mind that, for better or for worse, orchestras, opera houses, and chamber groups are businesses. They have to program works that will spur interest and demand (i.e., draw a sizable audience) and help recoup production and labor costs. What do you think would sell more tickets: a program of big names like Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff, or a program entirely of works by Kaija Saariaho? If you guessed the former, you’re probably correct. Simply put, Beethoven sells tickets. Anything outside this, not as much.

Funny, but also sadly true. (And sorry, I don’t know who to credit for this image!)

(Side note: any newer works that are programmed statistically tend to be written by white male composers, an issue that is only just starting to be addressed.)

But it’s not just musical organizations and their business acumen that are driving this almost obsessive reliance on “masterworks” and “classics” of the past. Many classical audiences tend to be apprehensive, or even scared, of anything that’s new or unfamiliar. Some claim to have had terrible experiences with “contemporary” music in the past and make sweeping generalizations that anything written within the last 100 years is garbage. (OK, that’s a really dumb hyperbole, but you get the picture.) Other listeners are willing to “suffer” through a concert that features a new work, so long as they get their Brahms on the other side. (More on this in a sec.) These attitudes can also crop up with pieces composed in the 20th century. Several years ago, I heard some concert attendees speak disparagingly about Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is pretty strange considering the work was composed in 1943 and is neither “new” nor “difficult.”

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