Rejoinder to the Washington Post reviews of Mozart in the Jungle


Comments on Occasional Factual Errors of the Washington Post’s two Reviews of the Amazon Series Mozart In the Jungle.

Here are the complete WP articles: Critique # 1 and Critique # 2.

Washington Post: “So it is remarkable to me that no one bothered to run the script by anybody who could point out its significant divergences from fact or, at the very least, show Bernal how to hold a violin (there are close-ups of him “playing” one, bow high up on the fingerboard.)”

LARA: In violin speak, there is no such thing as “bow high up on the fingerboard”. What is meant can only be “bow low on the fingerboard” which creates a sotto voce (softer) sound. Not only is that the sound some violinists aim for, but according to the show, Rodrigo had not played for a year. It’s quite conceivable he would have lost his bow contact point a bit.

WaPo: “…..Peters, in her role as chairman of the symphony board (a job that the show’s creators evidently confused with actually running the orchestra)……”

LARA: Hmm. Minnesota comes to mind – or any orchestra that has been anywhere close to Chapter 11. “Running” in all but name…..

WaPo: “As I mentioned in a review last month, it seizes on the sex-and-drugs part of the equation and goes off into some cloud-cuckoo-land fantasy of what the field might look like that has almost nothing to do with reality.”

LARA: I hate to burst the chaste fantasy bubble this reviewer is ascribing to our field, but I’m afraid that “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land” is more like it (Nice one! Keeper.)

Certainly, it’s possible that a person might meet only tea-drinkers who knit, happily practice their instruments all day, play Mahler and go to bed directly after the concert in order to rise, shine, don a cardigan and carry a basket to the market. But I find that unrealistic (though I haven’t met every musician. Or spent a lot of time in Utah).

Classical musicians work hard and play hard. Drinks, drugs, debauchery and even despair are the hallmarks of any field that has the intensity and creativity of ours.

There was a misunderstood scene (by many) where Cynthia the cellist shoots something into her hand from a needle. There is a muscular problem that many musicians get, called tendonitis – it’s akin to carpal tunnel – a repetitive stress syndrome – and is often the kiss of death if it becomes known in the music world. Lately, botox injections into the hand are said to help a lot, and that is what she was doing, hiding in a bathroom stall so no one would know she was suffering from it. 

WaPo: “When the series protagonist, a young oboist named Hailey auditions for the “New York Symphony,” the conductor Rodrigo decides to hire her on the spot. But we can’t hire her, he’s told; we already have four oboes. “Well, then,” he says (I paraphrase), “I’ll change the first performance of the season to the Mahler 8th, because it has a fifth oboe”…I imagine the writers’ glee at having tracked down a piece that calls for five oboes. But they utterly missed the bigger picture, which is that the Mahler 8th … a major undertaking for any orchestra. The thought of doing it because you need to accommodate an oboist is, for anyone in the field, extremely funny.”

LARA: It is a little bit funny, though the idea does speak to the passion and whims of the new ‘genius’ conductor. The writers decided to talk about and feature a piece that has been called a defining human statement for its century. I’d hazard a guess that tens of thousands of folks now know that Mahler’s 8th exists, and that people feel strongly about it. Call me a Pollyanna, but I think that’s cool. 

WaPo “…….If you’re not in the field, though, it probably sounds like pedantic nitpicking.”

LARA: Why, yes it does! But if you want nitpicking: Mahler’s 8th has not five oboes, but four, and an English horn. Therefore, Hailey would have been on fourth oboe and of course two chairs away from the principal oboist. But then, the principal’s snark would have gone unheard by her, and that is called dramatic license.

WaPo: “When I sat down to write about the show, I had a whole catalogue of this kind of error. A member of the most prestigious orchestra in New York would never run out after a performance to play a Broadway show, even if the timing allowed it (concerts and Broadway shows start about the same time, last I looked), or play weddings and receptions for extra money; they pull in six-figure salaries and already work full time.”

LARA: Actually, I know quite a few full-time prestigious orchestra musicians who moonlight – a matinee on the concert stage and an evening show on Broadway, or an evening concert on stage and a late night off-off Broadway or alternative show. I can’t imagine that Oedipus Rocks (the name of the fictional “show” Cynthia had to get to) had a 7:30 PM start.

 I have a good friend who, buckling under debilitating debts (student loans, instrument loans) had to work for the first many years of her prestigious orchestral job at anything that came her way – weddings, receptions, bar mitzvahs, even toddler birthdays. This happens to a lot of musicians. They are often treated badly in these situations; another thing the series got right.

WaPo: “A new music director would never be announced as a surprise in the middle of a concert.”

LARA: That’s true. But it’s an interesting idea!

WaPo: “A conductor would not bus the whole orchestra to rehearse in a vacant lot to help them loosen up.”

LARA: Probably not. But far more unbelievable is the fact that he was willing to pay for it. 

WaPo: “But when it comes to classical music, there’s an added factor: The popular image of classical music has a stronger hold on its depiction than any mere fact can challenge. Classical music is better, truer, more noble: That’s its meme, as it were. So people who are trying to depict it almost can’t help themselves.”

LARA: Is this obfuscatory and nonsensical just in order to sound highbrow? 

WaPo: “So perhaps one shouldn’t fault “Mozart in the Jungle” for falling back on cliches; plenty of people within the field are doing exactly the same thing.”

LARA: Please see immediately above.

~ Saurian Saint





6 thoughts on “Rejoinder to the Washington Post reviews of Mozart in the Jungle

  1. In your zeal to skewer these reviews, it seems to me you read right past my actual point of view — both in these articles and in my New York Times review of the original book (which you might find a clearer expression of what I think: It’s true that I have a very low tolerance for the kinds of dramatic license that end up warping reality, in any show – I don’t find it enjoyable, but I know that many people do. I have no argument with those who enjoyed “Mozart in the Jungle,” the show, though I can’t lie and pretend I enjoyed it myself.

    However, to the larger point, I should emphasize that I’ve always laughed at the classical music world for being so scandalized at a book that in essence said that classical musicians have sex and do drugs to the same degree as people in most other fields. My view of this Amazon series is that it got all caught up in this prurient “Scandal! Shocking! Sex!” view, rather than following Tindall’s portrayal of what the classical music world is really like, which would, in my opinion, have made for a much better and funnier show.

    One point, in particular, that you evidently didn’t understand were the sentences you found “obfuscatory.” I wrote: “But when it comes to classical music, there’s an added factor: The popular image of classical music has a stronger hold on its depiction than any mere fact can challenge. Classical music is better, truer, more noble: That’s its meme, as it were. So people who are trying to depict it almost can’t help themselves.”

    Since you didn’t seem to understand it, let me try to phrase it in even simpler language: “People cling to a very strong stereotype about classical music. They are so sure that it is supposed to be better, truer, and more noble that they can’t keep themselves from portraying it that way, even in the face of evidence — like Tindall’s book, for example — that it is not in fact that way.” Classical music and its world, to my mind, is a lot more interesting when we take it off its bullshit pedestal and actually let it live in the real world. Unfortunately this series, for all of its sex-and-glamour pretense, keeps it right up on that pedestal, bewigged Mozart and “visionary” conductor and all.

  2. Dear Ms. Midgette,

    I appreciate your note. It allowed me a second chance to work through your argument in the way I believe you intended. Thanks as well for the link to your review of Blair Tindall’s book. After reading through the first three paragraphs afforded to your own book, I gained a deeper understanding of your argument that Mozart in the Jungle is a show that harms classical music by not taking it seriously.

    As you state in your first review of the series, medical and legal dramas routinely cut corners for drama’s sake, yet you criticize this series for being so beyond the pale in its factual errors that it does the classical music world a disservice. I disagree. Furthermore, your failure to address my point-by-point rebuttal of your criticism strikes me as symptomatic of those who write about the classical music world from the outside in.

    Mozart in the Jungle’s portrayal of the real world in which musicians live is largely accurate and I believe it goes a long way towards demystifying classical music and musicians.

    And maybe this series will bring in a new generation of viewers intrigued by a show that doesn’t treat classical music as unapproachable. CSI, House, and The Good Wife have inspired a new generation of professionals, even though those shows are infinitely more ridiculous in their portrayal of scientists, doctors, and lawyers.

    It was not my intention to ‘skewer’ your reviews, but rather, to comment on several misconceptions about the classical music world. If your stance is that Mozart in the Jungle is so unbelievable that it can’t be taken seriously, then you simply don’t understand our profession as well as you may think you do.

    ~ SaurianSaint

    • Dear Ms. St. John: I am a little surprised to find that we are no longer on a first-name basis, but will defer to your wishes in this regard.

      I didn’t offer a point-by-point rebuttal of what you said because that wasn’t the purpose of my response. I think we’ve both stated our views perfectly clearly and at length. You think the depiction of Rodrigo’s violin playing is defensible; I find it distracting; what more is to be said? You believe that the chairman of an orchestra board runs an orchestra, and cite the Minnesota Orchestra as an example; I can add the clarification that what I meant by “running an orchestra” was that orchestra board chairmen are not involved with the hiring and firing of players and the planning of concert repertory, and I stand by that statement — it’s certainly not the case in Minnesota — but if you can find counterexamples, I will happily concede my error. And if it’s actually true that tens of thousands of people have come to love the Mahler 8th based on their fleeting exposure to it in this series, I can only agree that that’s a great thing, though I have a great deal of trouble believing it. In any case, many people will agree with your views; many will agree with mine; we’ve both said our pieces, and vive la difference.

      But the reason I originally responded was not because I wanted to argue with your views, but because it seemed to me that you were misrepresenting my own. I am not trying to defend the nobility and good repute of classical music against Tindall’s book or against this series; one point of my original Times review was to mock the holier-than-thou attitude of the classical world. And I strongly feel that had this Amazon series stuck more closely to her book, they would have had a better show. However: I’ve said my piece on that, as well, and it’s clear that I’m not going to convince you. I’m glad you enjoyed the series so much.

      All best,
      “Ms. Midgette”

  3. Pingback: Classical fact vs. classical legend | Stay Tuned...

  4. Mrs. Sandow, I would argue that the point of your original NY Times review was fourfold:
    1. To ridiculously mock my successful music career, when you have had none and clearly know nothing of how our world actually operates.
    2. To use a review of my book to instead review your own unreviewed book.
    3. To insinuate I had more than one 45-minute lunch with your husband, someone far too old for me, married, and for whom I of course never had any romantic interest. Most scholars, and I use that term loosely, are flattered to be mentioned in acknowledgments of a much-read and well-researched book.
    4. *Now* you like my book? You certainly trashed me with ad-hominem attacks in your first two of three reviews. The new trend for women to support one another.

  5. Who would have guessed the Washington Post’s leading (and only) full time music critic has such a thin skin when one of her own reviews is picked apart and skewered by a music professional. After all, she has a reputation here in DC for skewering National Symphony and Washington Opera performances with gleeful abandon — sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Take for example the opening words in her review of Christoph Eschenbach’s first concert as music director of the National Symphony: “A bride who wants to look beautiful, they say, should pick ugly bridesmaids. That adage worked for the conductor Christoph Eschenbach… He led the NSO in a Verdi Requiem that featured such an awful quartet of vocal soloists that he could only look better by comparison.” Witty, or nasty?

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