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MitJ: More Than “Madamina”


A slender reed. (John Dee)
A slender reed. (John Dee)

Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music (Atlantic/Grove Press 2005), the autobiographical treatment of an oboist’s lot in the hot ’80s commercial-music scene in New York, may have attracted a different reader from The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007), but like the later scholarly, nonetheless personal overview of the entire musical 20th century, Tindall’s more narrowly focused account also revealed essential truths about indispensable practitioners of the art we celebrate in these pages.

MitJ’s sendup of the music biz, the celebrity biz, sex, drugs, and timpani rolls made for a fine porridge that attracted Amazon Studios to produce a web video series starring Malcom McDowell, Gael Garcia Bernal and Bernadette Peters (written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers, and directed by Paul Weitz). Don’t look for depictions of bedroom scenes with Keith Lockhart, but do expect to find fast-paced vignettes of attractive struggling artists, celebrity conductors and dissipated impresarios.

BMInt recently talked with author/consultant Blair Tindall.

LE: Do you know how many people are watching the video? Is Amazon happy?

JT: Amazon is over the moon! It’s an enormous hit, though we don’t have any numbers yet. This online TV genre is very new; I’m not sure how it works, I’m not sure they know how it works. We’re just waiting to find out, but the show runner is told we’re on for season two. Just before I called you there were 11,000 reviews on Amazon, which for classical music is quite impressive. It’s actually going to be known as just another television network sooner or later, because on newer TVs you can get Amazon so easily.

I wish I knew the numbers, but that’s their department.

Gustavo Dudamel wasn’t in your bookhow did a character suggesting him come into video?

When I wrote the book in 2003, “The Dude” was unknown to Americans. I believe Dudamel came into our consciousness around 2005. So I am not sure. You know Jason Schwartzman is the creator of the show, he’s the guy I’ve been having the deal with since the beginning, and it’s now been ten years. His great-uncle is Anton Coppola, the famous conductor, and he was at the premiere; he consulted for the show. I assume it was his idea, because Jason and I think his cousin Roman Coppola lived here in LA. I would assume they were very aware of Dudamel. The Dudamel thing just seems like a great idea. He’s been so popular and he’s done so much for the LA Phil and so much for classical music. Also, I did not know this until I went to a television conference a few years ago, but the Latin American television market is enormous, so I think just that storyline can drum up a lot of popularity, plus, as far as I know this is Bernal’s first English-speaking role.

In the book you’re pretty forthright about naming actual names of conquests and encounters, but in the Amazon show they didn’t want to call the conductor Dudamel, because of course he wasn’t in your personal experience, but everyone now sees him as part of your life.

Well, the TV show is fictional. May I just say that a number of names weren’t named? I have a Stanford journalism degree; I taught journalism at Stanford as well. If you’re going to peddle a memoir without using real names, the work will not be believable. If people don’t want to be represented doing bad things, it might be a good idea to not do them in the first place. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Well, you didn’t name me for instance.

[laughter] Okay, I’m sorry! But it still somewhat astounds me that so much of the press describes the book as a tell-all, which it wasn’t at all. The whole purpose of the book was to talk about the rise of culture in late 20th-century America—but I knew that wouldn’t sell any books.

Right, that’s why you mixed in some sensationalism.

Yes, though I honestly did try to represent people in a positive ways. I’m always amazed when people find negative portrayals.

The parts about Sam Sanders were kind of sad.

Oh he was a wonderful man. Well, one sweet thing I have to add is that I’m a Facebook friend of Sam’s daughter. A beautiful young lady, she’s an artist like her mother and she married an African-American man and they had a child who’s now six or seven and he looks just like Sam—that same head of hair.

Back to the show, have you met Malcolm MacDowell and Bernadette Peters?

Yeah, I’m in the last episode of the show, and I was on the set for about two weeks of the shoot, which was very educational for me.

Are you playing?

Yes, I’m faking playing fourth French horn.

Now apropos of faking playing and conducting. Some of us who are musical are annoyed when we see people faking it in movies. That German Heimat series used real musicians wherever musicians were called for and when they were playing they were actually playing.

Well, the TV orchestra has real musicians, and I have to say the producers did their best; they hired coaches for every last one of the actors and gave them months of private lessons. Every actor of them can actually play his or her instrument at least a little bit.

Or conduct?

It was strange to watch the conducting on screen because I was there when Malcolm and Gael did the shooting. They recorded the whole Sibelius concerto with Malcolm but it didn’t quite come across on screen as it did in person. Both actors did quite well, and Malcolm was terrific and landed a movie role off his pilot performance.

Gael Garcia Bernal as "The Dude"
Gael Garcia Bernal as “The Dude”

Was someone else off-camera actually conducting?

No, Malcom and Gael had learned to conduct well enough. But the orchestra wasn’t playing, this was a score recorded elsewhere. I think something got lost in translation (sorry, Sofia) because we were miming to a soundtrack recorded in Bratislava, conducted—and I’m not making this up—by a high school squeeze of mine, Kirk Trevor.

It was like a few degrees of separation, I guess. I wasn’t there at the beginning of filming, but I believe the wonderful composer for the show, Roger Neill, was conducting offstage so Malcolm and Gael could mimic him. By the time I arrived, they’d almost turned into real conductors.

It was billed as the New York Symphony Orchestra, but the venue was surely not any New York hall I have seen. Where was it shot?

It’s a very well-known place for recording, in SUNY-Purchase. They have a wonderful auditorium there. There’s a really wonderful organ room just to stage right and some of the other scenes were filmed in there too. The exterior stage-door scenes were shot at the Public Theater downtown. But SUNY-Purchase is a fantastic venue for both audio and visual recording. They have an enormous parking lot, two lobbies as holding areas for the hundreds of extras on the show, and no traffic or subway noise.

You said an organ room?

Yeah I think it’s in episode 8, “Mozart with the Bacon.” It is a Flentrop, very visually appealing, and can be “floated” into the main auditorium on a device the New York Times described as a musical hovercraft. It is a beautiful instrument, and several MitJ scenes were shot in the room where it usually resides.

Well, I’ll get there soon but you’re not going to give me any spoilers are you?

Well, no! D’uh. You have to watch!

All right that’s good. Since your autobiographical novel/social history has been purchased by Amazon, how has it been to work with editors and producers, since you presumably sold the concept outright? Has it been frustrating? Would you do it again? And so, do you feel the point of the show was to tell the story you told in your book or was the purpose of the video to use the concept as entertainment?

The intent of the web series was to make a fictional representation of what I had written—that’s not unusual. A few friends of mine have written similar things and had the same thing happen to them. Nothing about the process was frustrating. I’m surprised people think the show differs dramatically from the book, because I feel like Jason and his co-conspirators completely got the minutiae of our strange tribe and brought it to life. The producer, Michael Zakin, scoured to book for details, and everything made it in.

Was there any back and forth while it was being produced and developed?

Oh, yeah. I’m a consultant on the show and director Paul Weitz and producer Roman Coppola would contact me often because I know concert protocol—just little things, like whether musicians bring their instrument cases onstage. One of the funniest questions I got was, “If you drop an oboe will it roll down the stage?” I didn’t try it out but did ask my repairman and he said no. But I wanted to stay out of the way; it is the Coppola family, and they know what they’re doing. They know classical music, but there were obviously liberties taken. We all know that orchestra auditions don’t happen the way the show depicted, and the producers know that too. But for the dramatic arc, it was pretty entertaining. I just tried to stay out of the way and I was very fortunate because I did get to know the director and I got to see the pilot in advance and I loved it. I went up and met the staff of 10 writers here in LA,  and I took my oboe and all my oboe detritus—the sheet music and reed-making stuff.

Did you make reeds for them?

Oh, no, that’s a little time-consuming. But everyone got to hold the oboe. I think it was a good thing to do, and then I left them alone to do their thing.

So you’re very happy with the result in part that it wasn’t meant to be a literal retelling of your book?

No, that would’ve been really dreary. Books never translate directly to the screen or stage, as I discovered while reading Les Miserables while playing the show. For performance, it needs to be much tighter and briefer—taking care to make it dramatically interesting.

If the video had been made for a presenter other than Amazon, would the sex scenes have been a little more hardcore?

We did have an HBO deal and we were passed over for the HBO series Girls, which has a lot of sex and nudity, so you’re probably right. And I’m just as happy that it’s this way because it’s more focused on the music. Sex was never the focus at all of what I was trying to get across. The editor put one paragraph from the book that talked about the different sexual styles into the pilot. I included that graf as a joke, but it got a lot of coverage.

Right, that male violinists are too quick in bed and…

Some people love it and some people hate it but there it is. There is one brief wardrobe malfunction in episode 8, I think that was accidental, but that is the only nudity on the whole show.

It didn’t end up on the cutting-room floor?

I think it’s in the introduction to episode 8. The lefthanded violinist is playing playing her heart out at an environmental outdoor function and her dress comes off a little bit. I think it’s 50 seconds into it! When we had a viewing party at my home in LA, only one person saw it, and I thought I might need to call an ambulance. It’s pretty good.

All right, which episode is that again?

[laughter] I think episode 8.

Did any deeper aspects of the music business get through?

Absolutely every last one. I was so impressed that they got all of the details right. The producer read the book carefully and he understood so much about the politics and the divide between the haves and the have-nots. As I said in the book, the whole non-profit scheme as far as I can tell originated with the Boston Brahmins, who around the turn of the 20th century wanted to develop a type of entertaining social club, which turned out to be symphony and opera performances. We’re not complaining about this!

And of course there’s not ever going to be a chairman of the board who’s also the CEO, but I think Bernadette Peters really brought those two roles together and it just made it more cinematic.

But there were other parts of the book where you suggested that there really wasn’t a crisis in audience size.

I need to come up with a soundbite for this just in general, but there is this problem between the audience, which is probably larger than it’s ever been, and the performer base, which is also at a record size. So you’ve got way more performances to spread the audience over. Where you used to have an audience of x number of people for 25 weeks, the same number of people now are spread over 52 weeks.

We list in the Intelligencer something like 2000 concerts a year in Boston, which is just an absurd number. So there aren’t going to be 2000 full houses; it’s just not going to happen. But the other nugget that I’ve always loved to share is how in 1908 the Boston Globe was observing that there was no future for classical music because at the average BSO concert the average age was over 60. And that was in 1908, and I think it’s probably exactly the same average age today that it was 100 years ago, so there are plenty of old people.

There were some NEA research papers that came up with the numbers for when people first start getting into classical music and it’s generally a little younger than that now, but I could be wrong. And people start going to concerts when they’re a little older, they have a bit more money, a bit more time. So that makes sense.

Does your explanation of how musicians really ought to get better general education come out in the video? Was it Lucy Stoltzman who wished she had learned more about the larger world at North Carolina School of the Arts?

I wrote the book a long time ago, but I remember she wrote a very eloquent paper (it’s in the bibliography of the book) about her experience at the same high school that I went to. We just didn’t have access to what normal people need to make it in the world. It’s still a problem, but it’s being overcome; there are better resources now in conservatories.

It seems orchestras, with younger marketing professionals, are finding new ways to attract a younger audience. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has programmed fun, exciting contemporary performances. The New York Philharmonic is producing dynamic visual ads today as well. That approach goes a long way.

Do you have more books coming that you want to tell us about?

My second book, called The Headless Bride: A Hollywood Nocturne, is coming out and I actually have a big meeting about it on Wednesday. I also have a travel show for which I went to Bali to film the promo. Name to be determined, but I’m going with No Strings Attached right now. It’s like an Anthony Bourdain travel show, but instead of food it focuses on world music.

What is the book about?

It’s a second memoir. I have to say I took a real chance writing this book and it did not go over well for a long time; things are fine now but they were rough for a while. I ended up scrambling for any work I could get, as I am now blacklisted as a musician because many of my tribe aren’t MitJ fans. I drove an airport limo in the middle of the night, scouted burned-out neon for an illuminated-sign business, and attempted to sell timeshare vacations—which is the work of Satan.

Blair Tindall at premiere.
Blair Tindall at premiere.

Is it somewhat of a sequel to “Mozart in the Jungle”?

It’s a sequel but really not with much music in it. This time it won’t include the nonfiction stuff, it’s just a funny memoir in the style of David Sedaris.

I’m also extending some of what my father George Brown Tindall wrote in his leading American History textbook, America: A Narrative History. His focus was the black history of South Carolina post-Reconstruction. He is no longer with us but he had given me a topic through which to approach Spike Lee, whose movies I was watching at the time. The story is about a black Civil War hero named Robert Smalls, who’s an amazing man, but unfortunately I didn’t get to him in time. So I’ve got a screenplay that I’m going to show at this meeting on Wednesday. And I don’t have a name for it yet. Several people have tried to do it, but it’s a very complicated story and I’ve been at this for years, but I think I might have finally figured out a way. In my father’s dissertation on South Carolina Negroes [here], the guy is in there just briefly, but I worked at the city newspaper in Charleston, where the drama happened, so I was able to go into the morgue there and look up the microfiche. I promised my dad I would do it so I’m going to do it.

Before I sign off on this interview, and as a breaking-news coda, I would be pleased to let readers know that Amazon just confirmed Season II of MitJ.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Here we have a second-rate oboist at best (I heard Ms.Tindall play in New York, and it reminded me of a joke a colleague once made about an auditioning student: “he is not an oboe player, just an oboe-owner”). So it is not surprising that she could only succeed by writing a “Peyton Place-Dallas-Dynasty” type of book that had nothing to do with the art of music, but much to do about her own foibles and abilities to ruin marriages and reputations. How sad–for our culture. But I suppose she will cry all the way to the bank.

    Comment by E.R.Staunt — February 24, 2015 at 8:28 am

  2. M.Staunt: so patronizing! So overwrought! “How sad” that she could ONLY succeed (!) by writing an entertaining book and tv show that actually engages new interest in the world of classical music! We need and want these new audiences! All very well and good for you to remain on your high horse regarding the art of music: some of us work towards a future for our art!

    Comment by Cynthiacurme — February 24, 2015 at 8:55 am

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