“Mozart in the Jungle” is a delightful show depicting the cutthroat world of classical music

The pilot for Mozart in the Jungle premiered on Amazon Instant Video, for free, on February 6, 2014 with a few other pilots, including Transparent. I discovered that there were no region restrictions on these pilots, so I watched four of the five that were available, including the two shows mentioned above. Transparent was clearly a show that was special and specific to a unique group of people, but the show I connected the most with was Mozart in the Jungle. Starring Lola Kirke, Gael García Bernal, Saffron Burrows, Hannah Dunne and Malcolm McDowell, Mozart in the Jungle follows Hayley Rutledge (Kirke), an oboist who lives with her best friend Lizzie (Dunne) and is aspiring to get into the New York Symphony Orchestra. Cynthia Taylor (Burrows) is a cellist with the orchestra, and is having an affair with the outgoing conductor of the Symphony, Thomas Pembridge (McDowell). McDowell is suffering some sort of identity crisis, as he enters his retirement and is replaced by the brilliant and eccentric (and much younger) Rodgrigo De Souza (Bernal).

Mozart in the Jungle’s pilot premiered on February 6, 2014, but after a first season was ordered, it didn’t premiere on Amazon Prime until December 23, 2014, just before Christmas. And for me, living in Australia, the first season was available on the Stan streaming service when it launched on January 21, 2015. The Amazon pilot process is weird. Amazon orders a specific number of pilots, which are then available for viewing in select countries (the regional restriction on Australia has now been enforced). Amazon then asks the viewers to rate the pilots they’ve seen, and based upon those ratings and some other factors they’ve taken into consideration, they order specific shows for full seasons. In this particular batch of pilots however, the survey data didn’t seem to say much; Transparent had the lowest ratings, but was ordered to series – Myles McNutt explains what else may factor into Amazon’s decisions here. I’m just happy that Mozart in the Jungle was picked up (I have watched the first two episodes of Transparent, which I will write about when I’ve completed the show’s first season), because it was delightful to watch these characters and their passion for music.

It’s really hard to describe this show without spoiling it, because it’s not a very plotty show. In the pilot, Hayley is running between her various jobs as she tries to keep afloat in New York; she teaches a young boy the oboe, and also plays in a band for Styx: The Musical, which is something you just have to see. Also playing in the band is Cynthia, the cellist at the New York Symphony, who introduces herself to Hayley because she sees Hayley’s talent. Over at the Symphony, Thomas Pembridge has conducted his last performance as musical director, and Rodrigo is announced as the incoming musical director. Thomas has some issues about this appointment, but he completely loses it when Rodrigo tells him all the times during which his musicians were out of time or out of tune. After drinks with Cynthia, Hayley returns home to discover that her best friend and roommate Lizzie is throwing a party for a bunch of classical musicians, and there is an oboe versus flute rivalry that is tested by a drinking game. Yes, there are classical music drinking games, which is why I will watch every episode of this show. The next morning, Hayley has to prepare her student for some sort of recital at his house, but she has a message from Cynthia that Rodrigo is holding auditions. Too late for the audition, Hayley sits down and plays her music anyway, just enjoying her music.

This show isn’t always great, but it’s at its best when it’s showing just how delightful music can be. “The Rehearsal”, the season’s sixth episode involves a performance that reminds the orchestra why they love what they do. The seventh episode, “You Go To My Head” is like a little break from the rest of the show, as Hayley walks around a mansion just talking to someone about why she loves playing the oboe. The season finale, “Opening Night”, is a clever piece of writing and being completely aware of how clever it is. On any other show, the circumstances that led up to the climax would have just been convenient coincidences, in Mozart in the Jungle, it is implicit that the series of events prior to the performance were the result of careful planning.

Other thoughts:

  • There’s a great scene in the fourth episode, “You Have Insulted Tchaikovsky!”, in which Rodrigo and Hayley just listen to the sounds of the city and hear the music. That’s what kind of show this is.
  • Roman Coppola is an executive producer on the show, and he directed the aforementioned “You Go To My Head”. As someone who has only just started paying attention to how visual media is directed, I noticed how beautiful Coppola’s editing is on this episode. If you only watch one episode, watch this one.
  • There are also romantic storylines in this show, but they’re not particularly interesting to me. Neither are the storylines about the orchestra trying to stay afloat, and one of the orchestra’s big sponsors trying to get rid of Rodrigo before he’s even opened the season.
  • The egos of the characters and what they have to do to succeed in this world are absolutely fascinating, and the Thomas/Rodrigo relationship is definitely the most fascinating on the show, followed by Betty, the First Oboist at the Symphony taking Hayley on as a student.
  • It’s a shame this show premiered two days before Christmas, it sort of flew under the radar, and I really hope it gets a second season.