Friday, 19 June 2009

Mozart In The Jungle / Review

by Blair Tindall
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
Available at Borders
An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 26 March 2006.

This is the book that scandalised America’s classical music world and set tongues a wagging. Its tale of loss of innocence, seductions, easy sex, drug-dealing and general moral degradation in the concrete jungle of New York City is a personal memoir of Blair Tindall, an oboist who free-lanced with the best – including the New York Philharmonic and Orpheus Chamber Orchestras.

But is this a true reflection of the classical music industry as a whole? Or is it a case of sour grapes from an embittered soul, one who has left the vocation and now exercising her right to the First Amendment as a journalist?

Tindall’s (left) kiss-and-tell life story begins as a music student with no real goals in life except the glamour of performing and admiration of others. She enrolled into the North Carolina School of Arts and later the Manhattan School of Music in the mid-1970s, when arts funding was at a high and professional orchestras were sprouting all over the land.

That’s where her poor decisions and troubles began. Na├»ve but nubile, she found her body an easy ticket to short term success where pure talent alone could not bring her. This continued after graduation, where the Hollywood casting couch approach to recruitment landed her plum jobs with the city’s top bands.

The lurid descriptions of her own shenanigans skirt close to outright pornography, and could have done with less nauseating, albeit brutally honest detail. Having intimate knowledge (biblically that is) of all the principal oboists in town has its advantages, until all of them get wise to her modus operandi. Then she becomes gainfully unemployed, eking out a living playing for pitiful pit orchestras under uninspiring time-beaters for Broadway musicals.

The backdrop is the Allendale, a decaying apartment block on 99th Street, where musical dreams are created or shattered. There a buzzing community of rising stars, has-beens and down-and-outs find mutual support and consolation. However its not all doom and gloom as Tindall finds out who her true friends are as they rally behind her one-and-only Carnegie Hall solo recital, one of the books more inspiring episodes.
Also central to this account is a sympathetic portrayal of one of her lovers, the late and renowned collaborative pianist Samuel Sanders (left), whom despite his fame partnering the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell, lived hazardously on the poverty line. The circumstances of his premature demise are heart-rending to say the least.
She has decidedly much less sympathy for Musical America’s bigwigs, including revealing the seven-figure annual paycheck of a famous conductor (one who very recently conducted the SSO) and the philandering exploits of another. More importantly, she asks pertinent questions about today’s hyperinflated classical music business.

For example, do communities deserve professional symphony orchestras when they cannot afford to support them fiscally? Why do chief executives of top professional orchestras accrue massive salaries while its musicians have difficulty keeping their heads afloat? Or what happens to music students after they graduate and find themselves jobless, without any other marketable skills?

She certainly knew, as she was one of these herself. Greed, power and corruption exist in all professions and industries, but by scrubbing off classical music’s supposedly squeaky-clean varnish, Tindall delivers a very absorbing and eye-opening read.
Postscript: Blair Tindall got "married" to Bill "The Science Guy" Nye in February 2006, but their marriage was declared invalid and the couple separated seven weeks later. Some people can never find true love. Sigh...

1 comment:

Steven said...

I've bought this book in Dec 2006 while studying in the US and hasn't stopped reading it since. Its an interesting mix of personal biography and investigative journalism, charting her own evolvement as a musician with national trends in the arts based on statistics gathered from research (Tindell explains that she 'escaped' from the classical music industry by enrolling into journalism school nearing age 40. It charts the progress of an industry that's funded by public money yet engages in suspect business practises that escape being noticed by mainstream regulators. Its a fascinating read that makes you think hard about the business behind professional classical music making.