Classical Radio in the Jungle


Warning: Minor spoilers below. 

I sat through a good portion of the Golden Globe Awards ceremony last night.  Usually I hate watching awards shows, and for the most part, was bored to tears by this one as well.  But as a lover of classical music, it was delightful to to see Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle take home two awards:  Best Actor in a TV Series (musical  or comedy) for Gael García Bernal’s beautiful portrayal of man-boy conductor Gustavo Dudamel Rodrigo de Souza, and Best TV Series (musical or comedy).  As Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette pointed out, with those two awards classical music had more exposure at the Golden Globe Awards than it has ever had at the Grammys, where it has almost never been more than an afterthought during the primetime televised portion of the ceremony.

Does this mean that classical music has hit pop culture status and is about to explode?  Not by a long shot, but it does lift the curtain on the world of classical-music making in a manner that nothing else has done before.  Those of us in a position to know may quibble with its sensationalizing of the classical counter-culture (doing shots while playing Bach on the flute – who does that?), or the often clumsy portrayal of oboe embouchure, cello bow hold, and conducting.  But have excerpts of Mahler 8, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony ever had such a wide audience?  Not likely.

I’ve been thinking a lot since watching the series (I’m halfway through the second season right now) about the parallels between it and the world of classical music broadcasting – not just in terms of what broadcasters can learn from the show, but also the common conflicts that are shared between broadcasters and the show’s characters.  As awesome as it is to hear such great music on a show that has achieved A-list status, the interactions between the characters and their individual struggles are what make the show tick.  Maestro Rodrigo’s conflict between trying to be an energizing force to remake the ensemble and the need to be, as one episode is titled, a “stern papa,” is fascinating to watch.  Hailey’s nerves while playing the intricate oboe part in Mahler’s 8th is something with which everyone, not just musicians, can identify.  The concertmaster attempting to fake the theft of his valuable violin in Mexico City in order to gain the insurance money in the face of a possible musician strike is far-fetched but entirely human.   I could go on and on, but the greater point is that the show humanizes an art form that I suspect many dismiss as being above their intellectual capacity to understand and beyond their emotional capacity to care about.  These are all barriers that classical radio should be attempting to break down as well.  Too often I hear announcers focusing on the mechanics of a piece of music (I’ve blogged about this before) rather than something that’s actually interesting about it.  There’s almost always something more interesting to say about a piece of music than what key it’s in – and “Mozart in the Jungle” presents a whole new set of perspectives on music and musicians that announcers can explore while on the air.

I was also struck by the analogies between the struggles of the individuals and institutions of classical music performance and the struggles I perceive in the world of classical music broadcasting.  A major subplot of the show is Rodrigo’s struggle to fill the void left by recently-departed (but very much alive) conductor Thomas Pembridge, a hilarious character who seems to be a caricature of Thomas Beecham, Arturo Toscanini, and the philandering Leonard Slatkin all rolled into one.  Pembridge knows best how to serve his aging and wealthy core audience, eschews exotic or non-traditional programming, and treats his young replacement with both thinly-veiled contempt and envy.  He represents the end of an era, and he is surrounded by an aura of equal amounts nostalgia and inevitability.  That aura extends to the institution (the fictional New York Symphony) as a whole; Pembridge is the “old guard,” the man the subscribers want to see leading the orchestra, the expert glad-handing fundraiser, and the familiar face with which the symphony’s core audience is comfortable and familiar.  Rodrigo is the bad boy who hates compromising his art for fundraising, recruits his unstable violinist ex-wife to play the Sibelius concerto (with nearly disastrous consequences), and who maintains the only way for the orchestra to survive is to take large artistic risks, rebuilding the group from the ground up while making the case to both old subscribers and new listeners that the symphony needs to change.

A similar conflict will inevitably play out in classical radio over the next decade, as the majority of leading classical music presenters (many of which have very long tenures at their stations and deeply loyal followings) retire from the job.  Many stations continue to broadcast legacy programming (the long-overdue-for-a-revamp Metropolitan Opera broadcasts come to mind) that appeals to a core group of dedicated listeners, many of whom provide a significant portion of stations’ membership revenue.  But does that programming provide the best broad appeal to the next generation of listeners that will create the foundation for the future?  “Mozart in the Jungle” leaves the answers to these types of questions open-ended, and is very thoughtful in how they are posed and answered.  Rodrigo, for all his bluster, knows that he can’t make the changes he wants without at least the tacit blessing from Pembridge and his allies.  Pembridge, on the other hand, recognizes his antiquated ways are quickly going out of style, and does his best to adapt to his new world even at his advanced age.  In short, the show rejects both the idea of sweeping, unencumbered change and the idea of perpetual stagnation.

I’ve often found that I’m guilty of over-internalizing movies and television, and perhaps I’m guilty again by reading too deeply into what is really just a fun romantic comedy-drama that happens to revolve around the world of orchestral musicians.  But the overarching themes are difficult for me to ignore.  On one hand, classical radio can learn a lot from how “Mozart in the Jungle” as made classical music marginally “hip” for the first time in…ever…?  On the other hand, we can draw parallels between the deeper character struggles and our own professional struggles as we try to remain relevant and chart a new course for the future.  In a perfect world, though, we’d do both.




About Joe Goetz

Joe Goetz is Music Director for WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana, and has eleven years of experience hosting and producing classical music programming for public radio. While completing his B.A. in Music at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO, Joe worked part time as a classical music host at KCME 88.7 FM. Following graduation, he worked as a classical music host and producer at Vermont Public Radio, developing new and engaging programming in addition to programming and hosting a daily afternoon air shift. He is an accomplished pianist with several chamber music performances to his credit, an occasional choir singer, and an avid golfer. He lives with his wife, Meghann, their son William, daughter Allison, and cats Ollie and Blanche.

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