Online drama tells a sordid tale of classical music

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Gael Garcia Bernal's performance as a brash, genre-busting celebrity orchestra conductor is a highlight of the new drama "Mozart in the Jungle," from Amazon Studios.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? This exceptional new series from Amazon would suggest that it's easy: You simply party like a rock star.

Mozart in the Jungle, with 10 episodes available for download on Tuesday, rips the mask of refinement off classical music and replaces it with a more dissolute visage.

It's heady, unexplored territory: Debussy and drug references, Prokofiev and penis jokes, all of it centered on the New York Symphony and its brash new conductor Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal, of Amores Perros). This grown-up wunderkind is a genre-buster. He's been on the cover of Rolling Stone and has his own groupies. (Did Leonard Bernstein have to fend off stage-door Jillies?)

Lola Kirke (Gone Girl) charmingly portrays Hailey, a young oboist, trying to make a living playing classical music in New York, which means, among other indignities, scrambling for gigs in the orchestra pit of Broadway musicals.

The premiere features a particularly gaudy example: former American Idol contestant Constantine Maroulis as Oedipus in a rock opera based on the music of the pretentious '70s band Styx.

Hailey and her performing arts clique lead a life that is part Girls and part "Bohemian Rhapsody." If nothing else, Mozart in the Jungle will boost applications at Juilliard once people realize what a crazy party school it is.

Even the older musicians are getting high most of the time, so much so that the symphony has its own gray-bearded drug dealer (John Miller). (He doubles as the kettle drummer.) Percocet seems to be the medicine most in demand. But there's a whole lot of drinking and pot-smoking going on, too.

Saffron Burrows (The Bank Job) plays Cynthia, a cellist who is very candid about the depth of her sexual experience. One of her recent lovers is Thomas (Malcolm McDowell), the very married maestro who was Rodrigo's predecessor in New York.

The cast does a more convincing job of pretending to play their traditional instruments than the actors in rock or pop music films usually do. But there are exceptions. Jerry Adler (The Good Wife) overdoes it on the trombone, and Garcia Bernal is too static to be getting those sounds out of a violin.

The first few episodes are the most shocking, drawing most of their flavor from Blair Tindall's rowdy memoir, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs & Classical Music, on which the show is based.

The tone grows more conventional as the plots begin to focus more on orchestra politics and appeasing upper-crust patrons.

But the tempo remains allegro, the setting unique, and the material well-acted, especially by Garcia Bernal. Bravo!

Mozart in the Jungle has great New York flavor and wonderful acoustics - for example, when Rodrigo hijacks the symphony to a funky neighborhood to play the 1812 Overture in an abandoned lot.

The series nails everything that NBC's Smash failed to do with the world of Broadway theater last year, providing a rollicking backstage look at the crazy, temperamental people engaged in artistic expression.

Encore!

 


TV REVIEW

Mozart in the Jungle

Available for download Tuesday from Amazon Studios


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4875 @daveondemand_tv