Stories Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music

By Joe Sugarman

Mozart In The Jungle Fullsize

Taking a page from Netflix, Amazon got into the original series game last year. This year, the website is weighing feedback from users on six pilot episodes, with only one series eventually reaching full production.

One of them happens to be “Mozart in the Jungle,” a tale of “sex, drugs, and classical music,” loosely based on oboist Blair Tindall’s 2006 tell-all book. In the Amazon version, which stars Malcolm McDowell, Bernadette Peters, and Gael García Bernal, the protagonist is Hailey, (played by Lola Kirke), a young oboist hoping to land a spot with the fictitious New York Symphony Orchestra.

So how does it rate? We decided to ask the BSO’s Katherine Needleman, another young oboe player, what she thought of the show. We even made her watch it twice.

Well, did you like it?

I definitely don’t think it’s great television, but because of the nearness to what I do, it’s interesting. The first time I watched it I was kind of appalled by the “oboistic” things that are not accurate. But my husband is a doctor, and we’ve watched some “Grey’s Anatomy”-type shows and he’s always like, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous! It’s so cheesy. That would never happen that way,’ and that’s sort of my reaction. But I am curious to see what does happen.

What were some of those ‘oboistic’ things that you noticed?

Only an oboe player would notice them. [The actress] is clearly not playing. She’s fingering notes that are not notes. Or sometimes she actually is fingering real notes, but they’re not the ones you hear coming out of the instrument. It’s also clear to me that she’s not really playing because of her neck. If you actually play the oboe, there’s quite a bit of pressure generated, and you see swelling in the neck or face or veins or arteries in the neck. You don’t want to see that on TV. She looks lovely and beautiful the whole time. It’s clear she’s not playing the instrument.

Needleman2Did you see any of yourself in the main character? Were your 20s anything at all like that?

I had a job pretty early on in my 20s. I wasn’t teaching lecherous teenage boys. My 20s weren’t like that at all.

How about at music school? Did you play any of those drinking games between the oboist and flutist when you were studying?

No. We either played, or we drank. Not together.

How did the TV version compare to the book?

I read the book, too, and the book was certainly more realistic. I can’t say my life resembles anything in the book either, but it seemed more real. The book was pretty trashy, but it was interesting to read in sort of a train-wreck way.

So what did you think of the young music director?

I’ve heard they’re modeling him after Gustavo Dudamel. Clearly this guy is an actor, not a conductor. He just looked ridiculous to me.

What did you think of that scene where Hailey auditions?

First of all, she just runs to this audition. Of course, you don’t have immediate auditions as soon as a new music director arrives. They’re not announced that morning. They’re advertised in the union paper … It’s not something that happens that way at all.

You do audition behind a screen, like in the show, right?

That’s right, but what she played was really weird. She plays the beginning of some Pasculli piece that would never be in an audition, and then it morphs into the third movement of the Mozart Oboe Concerto a few seconds later. Pasculli would never be in any audition. It’s just a show piece. … The music director would have to listen with the committee, or at the beginning, just the committee. It would never be just him and his assistant/concubine.

So, do you think the show is generally good for classical music?
Oh, absolutely. I hope it takes off. Anything to make it part of the mainstream and bring it into the public interest is helpful to us.

So you’d watch it again?

Sure, but I wish they had a consultant. They obviously hired an oboe player to play this stuff. She could have helped them get things right.

Maybe they should consult with you.

I’d be happy to!

“Mozart in the Jungle” is available to stream for free through March 16.