“Silent Symphony” does a good job of getting back to fundamentals. It illustrates how easy it is to lose sight of artistic beauty when art is your day job, and how a brief moment can remind you why art is so important in the first place. “It’s hard to believe I spent so many years learning how to blow air through a tube,” says Hailey at one point, and it captures just how a daily grind can make you miss the forest for the trees. Mozart In The Jungle still has its share of problems, and “Silent Symphony” is a bit messy, but by refocusing its energy on the difficulties of living as an artist and loving art at the same time, it projects a spark of life that’s crucial this early in the season.
The two main stories in the episode are Hailey’s financial struggles after her main job comes to an end, and Thomas’ podcast interview and his never-ending struggle with aging and irrelevance. The element that connects these two stories is ostensibly Rodrigo and how his mere existence has thrown both Hailey and Thomas for a loop, but out of those three characters, eccentric, speechifying Rodrigo is the only one able to connect to the music—despite his problems with the orchestra.
Let’s start with Hailey, who just lost her primary source of income as an orchestra member in the jukebox musical Styx: Oedipus Rocks after the actor who plays Oedipus lunges at an audience member for taping the performance. She’s wandering around New York, day-drinking with Alex, worried about how she’s going to make money after she blew it with the symphony. Alex tells her he can get them a paying job at this very moment… by busking on the street. It’s a really sweet scene as a crowd gathers to watch Hailey play and Alex dance in the park, because it depicts how a small gig can reinvigorate a sense of purpose. Notice how director Bart Freundlich closes in on Hailey’s satisfied face while she plays and cuts back to an attentive crowd. After being laid low by a serious professional orchestra, Hailey needed some encouragement, and in this case, encouragement comes in the form of playing on the street for change.
Next there’s Thomas, putting eyeliner on his office, waiting for an interviewer to come do a profile on him. Though Thomas expects a camera crew and a high profile, flattering interview, instead he gets Bradford Sharpe, played by Jason Schwartzman, a classical music podcaster who’s interested in the effect of Rodrigo’s arrival on Thomas and the orchestra. While the story produces some funny moments, particularly Sharpe’s pretentious podcast intro and Thomas warming up his vocal chords by singing “Ode To Joy” in German, it mainly rehashes what we already know about Thomas: He’s a vain, arrogant man who’s slowly becoming irrelevant within the institution that he built. It’s telling that Mozart In The Jungle routinely decides to make Thomas’ stories comedic when it’s ready-made for tragedy, and though Malcolm McDowell is a great actor and has a good sense of comic timing, it’s a shame that he doesn’t get more to do with his character other than bluster about Rodrigo and whine to Cynthia. Though the series is clearly aware of this—Cynthia remarks that Thomas is acting like a child, and Thomas replies he is not—it never seems to do anything about it.
Then there’s Rodrigo, who’s still frustrated with his orchestra. Though Mozart In The Jungle insists on slowly adding dimensions to Rodrigo in a way that places him on too high of a pedestal, “Silent Symphony” does a decent job of humanizing the genius and giving him scenes that open him up to the audience. When Rodrigo instructs his orchestra to play a “silent symphony” in rehearsal—playing the music without instruments—it’s telling that the scene is situated in Rodrigo’s headspace. He hears the music that they’re “playing” very clearly and finally gets excited about the players. However, the moment doesn’t ring nearly as loud as it should because Rodrigo is still shrouded in a cloud of mystery. The scene reminded me of a similar one in Slings And Arrows when Geoffrey (Paul Gross) forces movie star Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), his new Hamlet, to do the “To be or not to be” speech and actually sees the whole play during the speech. While that scene worked because we had seen Geoffrey’s nurturing effect on people and how he can transform them into great actors, the one in Mozart In The Jungle doesn’t work quite as well because we haven’t spent as much time with Rodrigo to know how his methods can affect people. I know I keep beating a dead horse with this, but until the series tightly focuses on Rodrigo a little bit more, all we know is what he’s supposed to be rather than what he actually is.
But “Silent Symphony” makes up for this a little bit with two key scenes that illustrate Rodrigo’s musical talent and his generosity. After Lazlo (Jerry Adler), an elderly trumpeter, collapses during rehearsal, Rodrigo visits him in the hospital and plays a piece on the violin. It’s a beautiful moment to see Rodrigo play, and the hospital employees, as well as Cynthia and Thomas, watch in amazement. But the crucial moment comes when Rodrigo plinks the violin against the sound of Lazlo’s heart monitor. In one shot, Freundlich shifts focus between the monitor and Rodrigo’s fingers, and it captures just how much music and life are intertwined for these people without underscoring the note too much. “Get better, guapo,” Rodrigo says, and it’s the first moment that truly clarifies the character.
Finally, there’s the last scene with Hailey who goes back to the orchestra to ask for her $89 check. After she sees Sharon mock her to another employee, she snaps and vents about how much it sucks to practice so hard and make such little progress. It’s a forced moment, but it ends with her cutting Rodrigo down to size: “All I can hear is an egomaniac with a fucking parrot.” Of course she turns around and sees him, but Rodrigo is impressed because he finally heard the truth from someone after years of people flattering him. He tells Hailey that she’s not ready to be on the stage, but she has talent, and offers her a job working as his assistant. It’s a nice moment to end the episode on, emphasized by shots of Hailey’s filled-with-gratitude face and Rodrigo, who asks Hailey to cut his hair, not only to end the youthful marketing ploy, but also to end his reliance on his own ego. It’s a sign that Mozart In The Jungle will also pare down and focus on what’s important: the music and the people playing it.
- The moments when we see the various orchestra musicians being themselves are stellar. I’m thinking of in the beginning when the orchestra members beneath the stage of Styx: Oedipus Rocks are eating Chinese food, reading, and knitting in between songs because of how routine the job has become, or during the 10-minute break when we see brief snippets of conversations between the Symphony members.
- Alex is such a smug douche. Hailey has legitimate concerns about money and all Alex can say is, “Look how beautiful is outside! You’re day drinking with a sexy man!” What?
- We get a couple more scenes with my favorite ensemble member Dee Dee, the orchestra’s drug dealer. When the head of H.R. calls him in to confront him about the drug dealing, he first breaks a little, but then she just comes right out and asks for some Percocet. Dee Dee complies.
- Lazlo asks Cynthia to take his place as chair of the orchestra committee because someone needs to fight with management to get meals on their health plan.
- Lazlo also plays Hesh in The Sopranos for those who don’t know.
- What to make of that weird flirtatious meeting between Cynthia and Rodrigo in the girl’s bathroom? She shows him her bass clef tattoo on her inner thigh and he gives her his bracelet. Smiles are exchanged. Interesting.
- More things we learn about Rodrigo: He has controversial political associations, publicly endorses hallucinogens, and has a “wildly tempestuous relationship” with performance artist musician named Ana Maria.