Two weeks ago, I wrote about Renée Fleming’s stellar Super Bowl performance and how it offered pop culture a rare (if fleeting) glimpse into the clandestine bubble of classical music. For all of us, it was a moment of great pride-finally, a star of our field was recognized alongside those popular celebrities who so often seem to grace the covers of grocery store tabloids (although I sincerely hope Renée never appears on the cover of The National Enquirer). Little did we realize, however, that the light shed upon us was about to grow brighter; in recent weeks, news has surfaced of various film projects expressing a common intention to throw back the figurative curtain on classical music. Unfortunately for us, none of them are very in touch with reality.
Let’s begin with “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music,” the new Amazon pilot that might best be described as a cross between “A Late Quartet” and “American Pie.” As discussed on Polyphonic by Robert Levine in a post earlier this week, the pilot-loosely based on the Blair Tindall memoir of the same name-strains reality: a brilliant new conductor (although his technique indicates otherwise) holds auditions in secret; a first-stand cellist of a prominent orchestra has to play a Broadway gig directly following her concert with Joshua Bell; the musicians participate in a bizarre drinking game in which the opposing players must attempt to perform their excerpts after imbibing multiple shots; and other unrealistic elements that will have classical musicians cringing. Add in the cellist’s affair with the outgoing conductor, the new conductor’s affair with the orchestra manager, and more f-bombs than Rahm Emanuel emits on a bad day, and you’ve got a pilot that gives the phrase, “Not your mother’s classical music concert” a whole new meaning. All that said, if you watch it with the idea that it is a mature, mostly fantastical comedy, it provides some decent entertainment. It is well-made and the performances (musical and otherwise) are quite convincing. The thing is, only a classical musician will understand (and flinch at) the comic exaggeration of the scenarios-and that’s an obvious cause for concern.
Then we have the recent Spanish thriller film, “Grand Piano,” which incidentally is also viewable on Amazon, although it will have a limited release in U.S. theaters beginning March 7th. Elijah Wood (best known to the world for his performance as Frodo Baggins in “Lord of the Rings”) plays Tom Selznick, a concert pianist who has issues with performance anxiety (apparently, playing a piano concerto is more frightening than battling Orcs) and is returning to concertizing after a long hiatus. Things take a wild turn, however, when he arrives onstage to find the following note scrawled across his music: “Play one wrong note and you die.” Sure enough, he looks down to see a red light trained on his left hand. Yikes! Escaping to the dressing room during an apparently long tutti section, he finds an earpiece left by his would-be assassin (John Cusack), who proceeds to make continuous threats against him and his wife as he resumes the performance.
“Now, you know the meaning of stage fright!” the villain rasps, as Wood looks up at the piano in horror.
I only watched the trailer, but my understanding is that the film actually received some good reviews, in spite of the fact that its plot is ridiculously implausible. I suppose the European critics were willing to overlook that in favor of the ostensibly expert thriller techniques employed by its ambitious (and apparently non-musician) Spanish director, Eugenio Mira. The glaring flaw in the plot-that concertos are generally performed without the music, which would make the whole scenario impossible-has evidently been ignored by the critics, as well as Wood’s unusual seating placement far above the orchestra, making it convenient for him to discreetly bargain with Cusack during the tuttis. Besides, how will Cusack even know if Wood misses a note? Has he got the score propped up against the butt of his AK-47?
All implausibility issues aside, the whole idea of a missed note spelling certain doom is reflective of the cultural notion that classical musicians are not allowed, somehow, to make a mistake. In fact, I once remember an audience member asking my father, who is also a cellist, whether he would be fired if he missed a big shift in the chamber music series he was playing! Now, obviously, it’s generally expected that we present ourselves to the best of our ability, but I’ve definitely never heard of anyone getting murdered because they missed their octaves or something, and while repeatedly botching performances might cause problems for you if you hold a principal chair in a major orchestra, the truth is that we’re not that picky. Yet, “Grand Piano” subliminally implies this very message-that being a classical musician means being held to standards of absolute perfection, causing undue anxiety amongst performers (appropriately illustrated by a chalk-white Wood sweating so much it looks as though he’s just emerged from the Great River).
What’s gotten less press-despite its equivocal significance-is “The Symphony Project,” an in-production documentary inspired by the controversial 2012 Boston magazine article, “The Audition.” For those of you who missed it, “The Audition” follows a dedicated but so far unsuccessful percussionist as he tries out for the Boston Symphony-an audition which, of course, he ultimately loses. The article’s source of contention, however, was its implication that playing in an orchestra is practically the only stable employment option for classical musicians-and to win, you have to pretty much play perfectly (although mercifully without the consequence of death if you botch your Strauss). With this premise, the article goes on to describe the psychological turmoil endured by auditioning musicians, ending with its subject literally crying in what can only be described as a desperate prayer: “Give me success or take this desire away from me. One of the two.”
Now, it seems Zerosun Pictures is looking to take things a step further. According to the the project’s website, thesymphonyproject.com, the goal of the documentary is “to tell the story of classically trained musicians and show what they go through in order to earn a spot in one of the country’s top symphony orchestras. This is a story that has been ongoing for hundreds of years and it’s a story that’s never been told.” Evidently, the crew intends to follow auditioning pre-professionals, who will be selected via “contacts at the Curtis Institute, the Juilliard School, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.” I can just see it now….a Curtis student doesn’t get into an orchestra! Is there any hope for the rest of us??
Of course, I totally support the idea of providing visibility to the unwavering dedication exerted by those of us who do invest so much in the audition scene-but this view of reality is obviously lopsided. The majority of classical musicians do not play in a top orchestra (how could they? There’s only like, seventy people in each ‘top’ group, and like, five to ten ‘top’ groups), but they’re not living on the streets-and that’s not even mentioning the innovative troupe of alternative ensembles that are becoming increasingly prevalent in the field. A non-musician watching the film will be left with the impression that classical musicians work harder than anyone else, but are nonetheless challenged to find stable employment-a perception which couldn’t be farther from the truth. If I had been given the Boston magazine article in high school and told this was the reality of being a classical musician, I probably would have become a journalist or something. Luckily for me, I had the example of my own mother teaching fifty students a week out of our house and doing just fine, so I entered into the field with the knowledge that there are other options.
So, to recap, we have a fledgling TV series propagating the idea that we are unabashedly promiscuous, a foreign film implicating that we really, really can’t miss a note and suffer from debilitating stage fright, and an upcoming documentary claiming that even the best of us struggle to find jobs. Okay, so it’s true that people have switched fields because they couldn’t get into an orchestra, people have struggled with stage fright, and yes, people have done some stuff backstage that would be better left unmentioned. The thing is, like all stereotypes, they are by no means representative of the general reality-but that’s not going to stop the filmmakers. If you’re going to make a movie, TV show, or documentary about classical music, of course you’re going to play to the knowledge that the average person holds about the field-and the average person generally does have this conception of us as this elitist, perfection-obsessed subculture. I could end this post with some profound sentiment along the lines of “It’s yet another reason why we should strive to get out of our figurative cultural bubble and show the world who we really are,” but that would be stating the obvious. Basically, the main thing you can take from classical music’s unprecedented foray into the film industry is that these are the notions being projected about us to the world, and what a lot of the world generally believes. Whether you’re content with that is up to you.