James Bennett II is a staff writer for WQXR.
New Season of 'Mozart in the Jungle' Features a Unique Performance
Friday, December 23, 2016 - 12:00 AM
“Not Yet Titled,” a new season episode of Amazon’s original television series Mozart in the Jungle, is notable even if you've never seen the irreverent comedy. The story is straightforward: the fictional New York Symphony has just ended their lockout, and under the baton of Rodrigo De Souza, they make their first public appearance for a concert at the Rikers Island prison. Even though it fits right into the mold of the fictional conductor, its connection to the real-world is what has us nodding our heads in awe.
Flavorwire’s Lara Zarum spoke to director Roman Coppola and produced a thorough feature on the episode, which is the culmination of efforts from the show’s production, superbly talented musicians, local politicians and the facility itself. The result was a truly “very special episode” that represented a departure from the show’s normal procedure.
In most episodes, the “musicians” on stage are actors and the sounds you hear are overdubbed by musicians from the Chelsea Symphony and the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra. But Coppola wanted to do something completely different this time: make an episode with live sound. That meant real musicians and a participating audience.
The featured music, by composer French composer Olivier Messiaen, is complex and extremely challenging. This meant that an orchestra had to be created almost from scratch, featuring some of the best musicians available. In fact, one of the pieces played in the episode — Turangalîla-Symphonie — required an obscure instrument that only a handful of people in the world can play with the requisite skill. But in the end, a talented orchestra, with their conductor just out of the camera’s field of vision, began to play for a select group of prisoners on the island.
The presence of live music on the Rikers (also the first time a live orchestra played for prisoners there) comes at a critical point in the discussion about prison conditions and treatment. After reports surfaced about the guards’ regular use of excessive force on inmates, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced a 14-point reform plan, aimed at reducing violence. As Zarum writes, one of those pillars involved “introducing more cultural and educational opportunities for inmates.” It’s easy to see how a musical show like Mozart represented a perfect fit.
In the piece, Zarum also profiles the experience of Angela Shankar, a clarinetist for the Chelsea Symphony who is also featured in the episode. Shankar’s reflections on the inmates’ reactions are especially telling of the power that music has in bridging cultural chasms. The audience was chilly at first, but once Gael García Bernal (Rodrigo), began speaking to them in Spanish and engaging them with the music, it was smooth sailing. In fact, the Chelsea Symphony has begun planning a second program on Rikers for 2017.
Be sure to read Lara Zarum's full article, and if you don't have the time to watch the episode, ponder Messiaen's flighty "Blackbird" below.