For the Makers of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, the Drama of Classical Music Is Crystal Clear

TV Features Mozart in the Jungle
For the Makers of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, the Drama of Classical Music Is Crystal Clear

For many, the two Golden Globe wins for the Amazon TV series Mozart in the Jungle earlier this year—one for Best Television Series, Comedy or Musical; the other for lead actor Gael García Bernal—came seemingly out of nowhere. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise: Despite a high-profile cast featuring Bernal, rising star Lola Kirke, and screen and stage legends like Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell, the show—created by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Weitz and stage director Alex Timbers—takes place behind the scenes of the fictional New York Symphony, and classical music is still widely considered something of a niche taste, a rarefied type of entertainment reserved for the upper class.

For some of the creative talent, that’s basically how they perceived classical music coming into the show, the third season of which streams on Amazon December 9.

“I still am pretty naive about what the world of classical music actually is, and about the history of classical music,” says Kirke, who plays Hailey Rutledge, an up-and-coming oboist. “And it’s something that I feel is really overwhelming. Like, every time I try to start Alex Ross’s [book about 20th-century music] The Rest is Noise… It was helpful, but I think to be an excellent classical musician, you really have to start young, [and to] have a really comprehensive understanding of classical music, you also have to start young—unless you’re really, really smart, which I am, but not in that way. Not in the way of, like, facts.”

It was in this spirit of discovery that co-creators Coppola and Schwartzman conceived of the show.

“I grew up in a family that valued classical music, but not in a fussy way,” Coppola recalls. “It’s not [that] we would go to symphonies or whatever, but Sunday mornings, my dad would blast opera, usually Puccini or Verdi or something like that… And then Jason and I, because we’re cousins, we both had [an] interest [and] curiosity, but not a [deep] knowledge. So with our show, getting involved was a chance to learn about it, get exposed to it.”

Weitz also had a musical connection in his childhood: His mother’s oldest friend, the bassist Orin O’Brien, was hired to join the New York Philharmonic by then-music director Leonard Bernstein in 1966. Hearing O’Brien’s stories about her life and travels as part of the orchestra is what drew him to Mozart in the Jungle.

“It always seemed like such an interesting and insane life that she had, trailing with this makeshift family to different parts of the world,” he says. “So when Roman and Jason sent me the pilot, it really rang a bell with me as something that seemed like a very strange but magical venue for storytelling.”

Bernadette Peters, who plays Gloria Windsor, the New York Symphony’s president, remembers a time classical music used to be a fixture on television.

“I’ve always loved music, my whole life,” she says, “and I was exposed to all kinds of music by LPs when I was growing up… Television had a lot of classical music, on Ed Sullivan and different things. So, I just adored it, and growing up, when there was some peace in the house, I’d put on classical music. Chopin or something like that.”

The days of maestros like Arturo Toscanini on the radio and Leonard Bernstein teaching young children about classical music on public television are long gone, which makes a series like Mozart in the Jungle—which features a lot of classical music on the soundtrack and is about the musicians who perform it—stand out. That’s not to say that the series is intended as a mere stealth delivery system to bring classical music to the masses, however.

“We don’t have a mission, like ‘We have to expose people to this thing,’” Coppola says. “But if we have that effect, we’re delighted to bring this music to a wider audience. But it’s a story, and it’s a show about characters, and music is just a part of it.”

Indeed, the series is, in many ways, a classic backstage comedy-drama, rife with competing egos and tensions between art and commerce. But the milieu gives it a specificity, one that, for all its exaggerations and gestures toward surrealism, speaks to real issues in the classical-music world. There’s something inherently egotistical in the sheer act of wielding a baton and imposing one’s interpretive will on an entire band of players. It certainly helps if you have the youthful energy and charisma of someone like the free-spirited Rodrigo DeSousa (Bernal), but—especially in its third season, in DeSousa’s romantically fraught interactions with a former opera diva (Monica Bellucci) hoping to mount a comeback—Mozart in the Jungle doesn’t shy away from the more disturbing implications of his Machiavellian egomania: He’s so devoted to the music that he’s willing to manipulate others to get the results he desires.

Perhaps even more pressing for the New York Symphony is the issue of how to keep classical music fresh and relevant for their patrons, both financially and artistically. The idealistic DeSousa often clashes with the more practical-minded Gloria on such matters; late in the third season, during a fundraising event, DeSousa suddenly blurts out his vision of creating a youth orchestra—to which Gloria reacts with angry consternation, worried over the potential expense. And then, of course, there are the wealthy fundraisers Gloria’s forced to appease, as well as the demands of the players themselves (labor disputes formed the bulk of the drama of the second season and continues for a good amount of the third).

And yet, the results of all this backstage maneuvering and strife can be glorious indeed, especially if it means turning people unfamiliar with the joys of classical music on to a whole new world. That’s the thrust of the season’s seventh episode “Not Yet Titled,” which represents the series’ most radical stylistic departure yet. Written and directed by Coppola, the episode adopts a pseudo-documentary format as an occasional supporting character, Bradford Sharpe (Jason Schwartzman), tries his hand at nonfiction filmmaking during the Symphony’s impromptu concert for the inmates at Rikers Island—a real trip the actors took, performing for real inmates on location.

“That whole episode was something I felt really anxious about,” Kirke admits. “I think aligning yourself with a prison in a moment where mass incarceration is being called into such incredible question—especially Rikers, which is an institution that is, at the moment, in the hot seat because of many things, among them Kalief Browder and the kind of inhumanity that it’s being accused of. I was nervous about going in there and participating in that. I think hearing about groups like Shakespeare Behind Bars and Coda, who I believe is a classical-music group that goes and does performances in prisons and jails and other kinds of institutions and rehabilitation facilities, made me see that this could be a positive act and an exchange of information.”

At Rikers, the orchestras plays selections from Quartet for the End of Time and the Turangalila Symphony, two of the most famous works by the 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen. The use of the former piece is especially fitting, because Messiaen wrote it and arranged for its world premiere in a concentration camp in Germany during World War II. The episode also features reactions from some of the inmates/audience members, many of them expressing gratitude for the experience.

But it wasn’t only the Rikers Island inmates that learned something from the episode.

“We have a guy in our writing staff named Peter Morris,” Coppola remembers, “and he was the one who suggested Messiaen. I knew I wanted to do an episode in a jail or a prison, and Rikers allowed us, invited us to do it. And so I asked him and other advisers, ‘I want to play some music that might have some relevance to people that might be in this situation.’ And he goes, ‘Well, you gotta play Messiaen.’ ‘Who’s that?’ And that was sort of the reason I wanted to do the show, to get exposed to things I hadn’t been aware of.”

“One of the things that hurts classical music is this notion that it’s ‘good for you,’ that you almost have to put on your smart-person college cap in order to listen to it,” says executive producer Will Graham, who came aboard Mozart in the Jungle this season. “Like Roman said, we don’t have a mission, but [the show] gives a sort of human way for people to relate to it and a way to start caring about it, and if it does that, then that’s great.”

Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.

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