Interview: “Mozart in the Jungle” Author Blair Tindall

Posted on January 22, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Photo copyright 2013 by Christian Steiner
Photo copyright 2013 by Christian Steiner

Amazon’s sexy and provocative “Mozart in the Jungle” series stars Gael Garcia Bernal, Lola Kirke, and Malcolm McDowell in a story set in the intensely competitive world of a big city orchestra.  It is based on the tell-all tale by musician Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music.  I am enjoying the series very much and was delighted to  have a chance to ask Ms. Tindall about it.

How unusual is it for musicians to perform in both orchestral and jazz/pop ensembles?

It’s very common. One of the more notable examples is Wynton Marsalis, a Juilliard-trained classical trumpeter who also heads Lincoln Center Jazz. Yo Yo Ma. Eddie Daniels. Chick Corea (classical Juilliard grad, I believe). Mark Inouye, new NY Phil principal trumpet. Hubert Laws. Jim Walker, former principal flute of LA Phil. LA studio cellist Armen Ksajikian. There are several in almost every major orchestra — I put out a call on Facebook last night and got 63 enthusiastic responses.

I’m on an album that was nominated for a jazz Grammy! “Remembrances,” Jon Faddis. This said, I know few who were originally jazz players crossing over to classical. They either learned both simultaneously, like Wynton, or explored jazz from a classical background.

One of the more common “other music’ jobs are Broadway shows. I played in about eight of them over 15 years, often rushing between the theater and Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. There’s a good example of this in the pilot, with the hilarious Broadway spoof “Oedipus Rocks,” and Cynthia stumbling in slightly late after a symphony performance. Lateness on Broadway is extremely uncommon, but it happens. People forget the one new early show time, people get stuck on the subway with no cell coverage, etc.  There was one instance of a horn player I know doing five performance the same NIGHT (not including afternoon) as he played in one movement here, the overture at the Philharmonic, stage band (usually only a few minutes) at both the Met and City Opera, and a short piece at Carnegie. He definitely won the contest! And made a lot of money that evening.

Nearly every Broadway percussionist, keyboard or reed player, trombonist, bassist and trumpeter does both.

What are the differences in culture between orchestral performers and other kinds of musicians?

Some of the differences are expected, but not at all universal. Some classical musicians are tattooed, some jazz/pop artists are not. I know quite a few jazz and pop musicians who are health nuts/vegan/fitness buffs, while others are not so much. Same with classical. For example, I went to visit a very successful and well-regarded classical friend in his 60s who’d just returned from a classical tour. He opened his apartment door, and pot smoke billowed out! Many of his colleagues won’t touch the stuff, others do.

But as the entertainment business grows more competitive because of online outlets, then entrepreneurialism — and therefore presenting the most polished version of your performance — has become important. Because of this, I think people are now more vigilant about taking care of their health.

Orchestral musicians are well-represented and protected by union contracts and regulations. They are non-profit organizations, and were originally formed early in the 20th century as a sort of social club for the wealthy. There’s still a touch of that, but the audience is far more diverse today. Still, every orchestra has a board of community movers and shakers who are responsible for raising money and choosing music director and CEO.

Pop, everyone playing it hopes, is for-profit. Not much fundraising, and audiences come because they’re passionate about the music — or particular scene/crowd the band draws. Except for certain cases, pop is largely not regulated by the union.

Jazz was once a bunch of passionate musicians on their own, No fundraising, little union representation, no non-profit status. That’s changed in the last 20 years, and it’s headed the way of symphonies. Now there are non-profit-status jazz organizations and festivals, although union rates — especially health and pension contributions, largely lag behind those of orchestral musicians.

Is there a bigger difference between their audiences?

They’re largely separate. The reason? Orchestras are nonprofit organizations, which in the the arts were largely set up as social clubs for the monied set, decades ago. They really caught that in the TV show. For some, attendance may be about the music, but often, it is more about networking and building a community attractive to business (orchestra, ballet, opera, museums are often considered essential here). Pop and jazz is much more band/genre-specific.

What do readers tell you most surprised them about your portrayal of the world of orchestral music?

Many are very interested about how freelance musicians piece together different jobs, and how we get hired. In my case, people are fascinated by the reedmaking. People want to know what goes on in rehearsals, and how many rehearsals are needed to put on a concert (for major orchestras, usually 4 rehearsals, or 10 hours’ worth). Many are surprised to learn that orchestras have CEOs and an army of executives and administrators, not to mention the salaries the top executives and conductors draw. Sometimes people are surprised to end up in the grocery line behind someone with an instrument. I think that not many audience members gave it much thought, as concerts are presented so formally, but are startled that musicians are just people in any other profession! We work hard, play, are dedicated, misbehave, and anything else you can think of. We’re just like any other cross-section of society — there’s some of everything.

What surprised you the most when you began playing professionally?

I started gigging at 14, so not much. But in NYC, I was surprised by the lengths musicians go to make a living. For example, a week at one of my orchestras, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, in Poughkeepsie, involved up to 24 hours of commuting each week we performed. We usually got back to Manhattan after midnight, crossing the George Washington Bridge, only to be greeted by one of those squeegee guys banging on the hood. That said, my carpool bonded for life. We had some epic and fun car rides I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Do you think that today’s compositions — either symphonic or otherwise — will be played centuries from now as Mozart and Beethoven and Bach are still played today?

Definitely. Not everything, of course. But plenty who were contemporaries of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach have been forgotten. The great will always endure.

What did it feel like to see your words come alive in the series?  Are the characters the way you pictured them?

I couldn’t be more thrilled. The series is created by some of the best minds in Hollywood, people who also have a background in classical music. There were two musician/writers on the 10-writer staff. When I wrote the book, I made a list of every issue facing classical music, and found a scenario from my life that illustrated each one. Michael Zakin, the producer with American Zoetrope, scoured the book and captured that in vast detail. I was excited to discover the pilot script captured what I’d tried to convey, including the power struggles, orchestra administration, union politics, audience attitudes, and more.

I loved what they did with the characters — they captured much of what I tried to get across. Each character has something they can contribute to the issues in classical music, and the characters they added all have facets that can do the same. For example, the LA Philharmonic didn’t have a charismatic Latino conductor when the book was published. But that was a brilliant addition, and I love the friction/friendship between Rodrigo and Thomas. The Betty character (older oboist) is very close to the Betty in my book, who was a bassist in my building. My Betty was someone now in her 70s who’d battled her way through an army of men to succeed. She was sometimes angry at the young folks who have it easier, and romance eluded her until her married lover of 30 years was widowed. They only had a couple of years together before he died. The actor playing timpanist Dee Dee is actually a very successful bass player in real life. But although he doesn’t resemble any of the drug dealers of yore, he was perfect for the role.

What do you most want people to know about symphonic music?

You don’t have to know ANYTHING about music to enjoy it. The snob sitting next to you is probably bluffing. Just sit and enjoy. Watch the show and decide what music elates you. And there are plenty of places to try out performances free — YouTube is a great place to shop around. Most cities and towns have parks concerts that are very casual — take a picnic. Symphonies are reaching out to newer audiences with casual, shorter “rush hour” concerts, pre-concert lectures, and reduced rate tickets. It doesn’t have to be a formal, expensive affair. Listen to the radio, try out a casual concert, and listen. If it moves you, that’s the music you like; you don’t have to like it all!

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