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REVIEW: 'Mozart in the Jungle,' Amazon Prime's Symphonic Sex Farce, Plays Sour for Malcom McDowell, Bernadette Peters, Gael García Bernal

By Louise Burton l.burton@classicalite.com on Feb 17, 2014 02:40 PM EST

The long-awaited pilot episode of Mozart in the Jungle is finally available on Amazon Prime's Instant Video. It's based on Blair Tindall's novel of the same name, a story of "la vie bohème" in New York City, where young musicians scramble for better-paying gigs while diverting themselves with sex and drugs until the day when the Philharmonic comes calling.

This pilot is part of Amazon Studio's recent foray into original programming. Moreover, Jeff Bezos' first media company is encouraging viewers to watch these initial episodes and vote on which ones they think should be made into a series.

As such, I don't want to give away too much of the plot...but do be aware that Mozart in the Jungle is rated TN-MA (i.e. for mature audiences only).

In the opening scene, we meet Hailey, a young oboist played by Lola Kirke (sister to Girls star Jemima Kirke). Hailey is giving a lesson to a bored high school student who is more interested in scoping out his attractive teacher than in playing the oboe.

We are told Hailey is from North Carolina. Kirke gamely plays the part of the unsophisticated girl who enters the fast company of a group of New York musicians who seem much more intent on sleeping their way to the top than actually practicing their scales. (Hailey's oboe solos are ably played by Lelie Resnick, the principal oboist of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.)

And violinist Joshua Bell makes a cameo appearance in this first episode, playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the "New York Symphony," clearly a stand-in for the New York Phil.

The Mozart in the Jungle pilot aims for the gutter in the very first shot and pretty much stays there for the rest of the episode. Everyone is shagging everyone else, or talking about it, with a single-minded focus that's a bit unbelievable in classical musicians, but can make for some rather entertaining viewing.

Thomas, played by Malcolm McDowell, is the seasoned conductor of the New York Symphony. He is forced to accept the position of "conductor emeritus" when the orchestra's flamboyant new music director, Rodrigo, arrives.

Several commentators, of course, have noted a resemblance between the character of Rodrigo and Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The symphony's chairwoman, played by Bernadette Peters, presents the new maestro to an ecstatic audience, giving Rodrigo a glowing introduction while a video plays in the background of the young maestro's triumphs.

Rodrigo is portrayed by Gael García Bernal with appropriate fire and passion, marred somewhat by the video that displays Bernal's extremely inept conducting skills. One hopes that Bernal will work on his conducting if this pilot actually gets made into a real series.

Meanwhile, McDowell trades barbs with Peters over her choice of the new maestro, warning her, "I love you, but don't ever underestimate me." His words hint that Thomas is not yet ready to go gentle into that good night; we look forward to seeing what his response will be.

Watching this seasoned conductor fight back after being edged out by a hot young rival is ultimately more interesting than watching the assorted love affairs and hookups that play out among the pilot's younger characters. I look forward to seeing what McDowell, Peters and Bernal do with these intriguing characters and situations.

In order to watch the rest of this episode, classical musicians may find they have to suspend their disbelief. The raunchiness factor is extremely high, which may not be to everyone's taste.

Indeed, one hopes that if this series gets the green light, Mozart in the Jungle will focus more on these musicians' rivalries and how they get ahead in the jungle that is the fiercely competitive New York music scene--the real story struggling to get out here in this pilot episode.

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TagsMozart in the Jungle, Blair Tindall, Malcolm McDowell, Bernadette Peters, Lola Kirke, Gael Garcia Bernal, Gustavo Dudamel, Joshua Bell, Lelie Resnick

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