'Mozart in the Jungle' plays it close to home in the classical world

David Ng
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times
Before rock, longhair musicians played the classics. 'Mozart in the Jungle' lifts the curtain on their world

Can you hear the hair?

On billboards and bus ads across Los Angeles, the curly locks of Gustavo Dudamel often seem to be in motion as the conductor strikes a pose of musical ecstasy.

In "Mozart in the Jungle," Amazon's new comedy series set in the classical music world, "Hear the Hair" is a cringe-worthy promotional campaign behind Rodrigo, the new music director of a fictional New York orchestra.

Like Gustavo, the smoldering Rodrigo, played by actor Gael García Bernal, hails from Latin America, studied violin, shot to international fame as a conductor in his 20s and is now so beloved that he is often referred to by first name alone.

And like Gustavo, his wild hair has become something of a trademark — a symbol of youth, energy, sex appeal and pretty much everything else lacking in the classical music sphere. (Another Rodrigo promotion is the Twitter hashtag #sinfomania.)

"He's a rock star, and he's conscious of being sold as a rock star," said Paul Weitz, a director and producer on the series, whose creative team also includes Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and theater veteran Alex Timbers. "He's good at promoting and being promoted."

Just to be clear, Weitz was talking about Rodrigo, not Gustavo. When asked how much they borrowed from reality, the show's creators, speaking from New York, offered a somewhat cagey explanation.

"We wrote this character, but Gael brought such a richness. It's his invention," Coppola said.

Weitz added: "I think there's an aspect of him inspired by Dudamel. Dudamel came up through a youth system [Venezuela's El Sistema], and we liked the idea that Rodrigo didn't come up from privilege."

"Mozart in the Jungle," whose first season is available starting Tuesday, , is loosely inspired by oboist Blair Tindall's 2005 nonfiction book that depicted sex, drugs and other forms of debauchery in the classical-music profession.

The series — at once whimsical and humorously crude in tone — features a panorama of characters who form what Weitz described as "a dysfunctional family brought together by a love of music."

Malcolm McDowell plays the orchestra's resentful, aging maestro whom Rodrigo pushes out, while Saffron Burrows is a jaded cellist with whom the older conductor is having an affair. Bernadette Peters is the orchestra's urbane chairwoman who referees the organization's many internal quarrels.

Tying the narrative strands together is actress Lola Kirke as a young oboist named Hailey who is making ends meet by giving private lessons to snotty, privileged children by day and playing in the pit of a cheesy Broadway rock musical by night.

Hailey's chance encounter with Rodrigo during the pilot episode, which Amazon released earlier this year, sets the show in motion, with the conductor offering her a seat in the orchestra.

The idea for the series originated with Schwartzman, who said he was inspired after reading a review of Tindall's book.

"I love music, and I'm interested in the lives of musicians. I'm also interested in passionate people who have devoted their lives to something and are slightly at an imbalance about how much they love something," he said.

Both Coppola and Schwartzman, who are cousins, have classical music in their veins. Their late grandfather, Carmine Coppola, was a noted conductor, flutist and Oscar-winning composer. Their great uncle, Anton Coppola, is an opera conductor.

But neither was a classical aficionado before working on the series. "Classical music is like wine. You're scared of saying anything," said Coppola, whose father, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, happens to own a winery.

For insight into the classical world, they consulted with experts, including New Yorker critic Alex Ross and renowned bassist Orin O'Brien, who is a family friend of Weitz.

"She would talk about two members of an orchestra who were playing next to each other for 25 years, but not speaking for 15 years," recalled Weitz.

The creative team also consulted with a famous conductor whom they declined to name but who provided some revealing anecdotes. In one of his stories, members of an orchestra were provided with female escorts while on tour in Japan.

"Mozart in the Jungle" also depicts some of the more prosaic aspects of orchestral life — chronic financial difficulties, intractable union negotiations and the obligatory brown-nosing of wealthy patrons.

In one scene, Rodrigo charms a crowd of elderly New York society ladies who can barely conceal their attraction to the young conductor.

The Mexico-born Bernal plays the maestro as a wise fool, possessing a childlike carelessness and a profound, almost peerless mastery of his craft.

"He's a lot of everybody — I'm still trying to find the kind of conductor I would like him to be," said the actor by phone from Buenos Aires.

One of the conductors Bernal studied for the role was Alondra de la Parra, a female conductor from Mexico who has made guest appearances with orchestras around the world.

He also attended concerts and talked to people within the industry. "He's such a fun character, and I really enjoyed playing him," he said.

Representatives for Dudamel didn't respond to requests for comment.

Amazon shot the series on location in New York, using the exterior of the Public Theater to stand in for the orchestra's concert hall. The interior concert scenes were shot at SUNY Purchase in upstate New York.

Schwartzman puts in a humorous cameo as a classical-music podcaster who interviews McDowell's bitter conductor, who regards online journalism with contempt. To develop questions for the scene, Schwartzman said he asked the New Yorker's Ross for advice.

"He said that the first question has got to be 'Is classical music dead?'" recalled Schwartzman. The actor said he was exposed to classical music at an early age thanks to his mother, Talia Shire, who would take him to the L.A. Philharmonic.

"There's no big message to the show," he said. "But it would be amazing if someone saw it and went out and got a classical record."

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