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Welcome to the jungle 

Blair Tindall's memoir still has symphony playing flat

North Carolina native Blair Tindall's recent book is a tell-all about music, corruption, racketeering, sex, drugs, alcohol and extramarital affairs. There are no Led Zeppelin-like pairings of groupies and mud sharks, but the book's plenty sordid, if relatively subdued.

"Another cash-in tell-all," you're probably saying -- right before you scratch your head and blurt out, "Wait a minute -- who the hell is Blair Tindall?"

Glad you asked. She's an ... oboist?

Tindall decided to write her memoirs, the controversial Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music (Atlantic Monthly Press; 3Stars), after spending some 25 years in the world of professional classical music. Did we mention controversy? In this state alone, Tindall -- a North Carolina School of the Arts graduate -- has had two appearances cancelled already, at the Eastern Music Festival and the Brevard Music Festival.

Mozart in the Jungle blends the story of Tindall's classical music education with that of postwar classical music itself. She soon describes how the rise of rock -- as well as '60s-era class politics -- eventually led to where we are today, with (her estimate) some 5,000 music school graduates fighting over the same 250 or so symphony jobs. The solution? In the 1980s, at least, it was to go freelance -- do film scores, jingles, CD projects.

Today, however, many orchestras are in yearly fights for funding. CD sales are scattershot at best, movies tend to use popular songs, and even Broadway shows typically use prerecorded music.

Tindall seems to see this as a positive. As she writes, "Classical music could learn from the diamond companies, which have transformed a relatively common mineral into something precious by limiting its abundance in the marketplace."

Mozart in the Jungle is either the final nail in the classical coffin or the first one pounded in the process of rebuilding. Perhaps instead of dismissing pop music with a shrug and raised eyebrow, classical music could learn a little from rock & roll and hip-hop about speaking to "common folk."

Tindall's case is convincing. Today, the mere idea of classical music -- with its overwhelmingly white, aristocratic origins -- is almost politically incorrect to some. Some of this is perhaps also due to the overriding notion of many that pop, rock and hip-hop are ephemeral musics, whereas classical, with its centuries-long heritage, is somehow unimpeachable and here to stay.

To boot, the unspoken target audience for most symphonies (no matter how many Peter and the Wolf children's concerts are presented) is Baby Boomer age or older -- often much older, and monied. Concerts are presented in concert halls (a necessity, due to the lack of amplification), and performers -- as well as much of the audience -- wear tuxedos and cocktail dresses.

Tindall does her part to shake things up: She describes selling dime bags while in school, trading sexual favors for jobs, taking copious amounts of Inderal (a stage fright drug) and running around between jobs more than anyone since Heidi Fleiss.

Gale Mahood, artistic administrator of the Charlotte Symphony, doesn't put a lot of stock in Mozart. "My overall impression of Ms. Tindall's book is that while she devotes approximately 90 percent of the book to her own sexual escapades and her 'resulting' freelance gigs, she then, without accurate documentation or factual support of her conclusions, condemns the entire classical music industry for being guilty of sexual nepotism."

For Mahood, who says her opinions don't represent the Charlotte Symphony at large, Tindall's book hits home: "She calls out the Charlotte Symphony as among the lower-paying positions with a salary of '$27,000.' In actuality, the figure for the 2003-2004 season ... was $26,520, but Tindall fails to report that the orchestra union's seven-week strike in that season reduced the salary accordingly, and in the following nonstrike year the salary returned to $31,350."

By the end of the book, Tindall earns a master's in journalism from Stanford, becomes a journalist (Sierra magazine, The San Francisco Examiner and The New York Times) and decides she shall only play music when she really feels it, not when some movie producer comes calling. It is no longer the all-consuming obsession for Tindall that it once was.

To paraphrase another Dead White Male, the furor over Mozart is much ado about nothing -- except that classical music lovers are people with failures and foibles just like us lowbrows.

Mozart in the Jungle is available at bookstores. The Charlotte Symphony will perform Handel's Messiah at Belk Theater, with the Oratorio Singers, at 7:30pm Dec. 21. For info, call 704-372-1000.

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