Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Photo: David Howell

There’s only one actual orgy mentioned in Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music, the memoir by an oboist (with the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, plus time in the Broadway pits) turned journalist (contributing to the Times, among others). Most of her revelations are about her own youthful indiscretions: In this small world, it’s easy to sleep your way out of every orchestra in town. But in among the postconcert skinny-dips lies serious criticism of the way America’s orchestras conduct business, and of the starry-eyed funding boom that sent thousands of kids to conservatories but forgot to tell them that there weren’t any jobs to be had after graduation. Tindall spoke with New York.

It’s a clever idea—the book’s really about what’s wrong with the business, with a sex-and-drugs overlay …
I would have preferred to write a book that just told the history of the last 50 years of the arts, but, I mean, three people would read it. I would have preferred not to reveal so much of myself. But I don’t think I would have been as credible—and there’s a lot I didn’t reveal! My mother is absolutely horrified.

The ex-boyfriends don’t come off too well.
Yeah, it’s true. But I’m not gonna be easy to find. I’m pretty unlisted.

And anyway, you don’t seem to have indulged in the worst of the behavior you describe. Most of your dirty laundry is just pot-smoking and drunken hookups—I mean, you weren’t all coked-up, like a lot of the people you played alongside.
Well, it was outrageous in every field, all over New York, in the eighties. I mean, AIDS really changed everything. A lot of the friskiness in the book happened before you knew sex could kill you.

You give a diagnosis of the problem with the classical-music industry: A lot of well-meaning funding was set up to “improve” people’s lives just before the audience started to shrivel away. But you don’t quite lay out a prescription to fix things. Is there one?
One of the executive directors of a major orchestra was saying to me, “Why are the musicians so belligerent? Their contract’s great—ten weeks’ paid vacation, six figures minimum now, and recordings on top of that, and all kinds of benefits.” And another said, “I feel like my whole life is not about serving the audience but serving the musicians’ employment needs.” And I think that’s really the big change [that’s needed]—shifting the attention away from providing employment. Everybody is paying for it, because all these nonprofit orchestras and chamber groups are supported by tax benefits.

So infighting starts to matter as much as talent.
You get consumed—you know everyone fighting over this tiny pile of treasured jobs. Jobs that are very scarce and in many cases don’t even pay that much, and they’re never gonna lead to anything. And kids who go to conservatory don’t learn much else. The people onstage are often kind of blue-collar, trained as craftspeople. We don’t know the great literature, we aren’t great at math, and we don’t earn a lot of money. My high school—that was a travesty when I went there. I didn’t take any math, no geometry, no chemistry. I had a semester of biology, and that was about all that was required other than English. You see how isolated musicians are—someone asked me the other day, “Does the NEA still exist?” I mean, they’re just completely unaware of where the money’s coming from.

So then what do you say when a kid asks you about a career in music? Do you get those questions a lot?
All the time. I got a really disturbing e-mail from a father of a clarinet player that said, Can you give me some guidance? And I wrote him saying, Make sure your kid is really, really interested in becoming a clarinetist. Make sure he talks to some people who are already doing it. If he’s dead-set on it, enroll him in a conservatory that’s part of a university—Indiana University, Oberlin. Everybody I know who went to those places is much more well rounded than the people who went to school like I did.

It sounds as if the answer is to have less music rather than more, and make it better.
This is gonna sound like sacrilege to a lot of people. I have played so many concerts of poor quality in some godforsaken neighborhood where three people came, and somehow the money had been assembled to do this. And kids: My experience with them is that when people see live musicians wearing clothes that they wear, who look like them, they’re mesmerized by it. But when it’s presented as something very highfalutin, it’s frightening. The wall comes down right away.

Mozart in the Jungle
By Blair Tindall.
Atlantic Monthly Press.
318 pages. $24.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark