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'Mozart in the Jungle' tackles gender disparity in music

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Lola Kirke pursues a new path as a conductor in the third season of "Mozart in the Jungle."

The third season of the Amazon series takes on the lack of opportunities for female composers and conductors.

In the past year, only half of the major U.S. orchestras programmed any music written by women. One big exception in the field is the L.A. Philharmonic, whose upcoming season will feature 22 commissions by women composers. Another exception: the fictional world of “Mozart in the Jungle."

In the fourth season of the Amazon Prime series, which dropped on Feb. 16, women dominate the conductor’s podium and music stands way more than they do in real life — women like Laura Karpman, who got involved with the series after previewing one of her works with the innovative L.A. opera company, The Industry, last year. 

“I did a 15-minute excerpt of my opera on Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs,” she says. “It is called ‘Balls’ — yes, indeed.”

The composer dramatized the famous tennis match from 1973, when she found out about a television gig that was going to deal with a different sort of “battle of the sexes.” Yuval Sharon, artistic director of The Industry, had recommended Karpman to Elena Park, the opera and classical music consultant on “Mozart in the Jungle.” 

“I was asked to create this sound for Thomas,” says Karpman, “and it was cool, because I had to get inside of his head.” 

Thomas, played by Malcolm McDowell, is the silver-haired conductor modeled after Leonard Bernstein. This season he has a new, not-very-good orchestra, and is trying to innovate with classical music to make them more relevant. 

“He’s in a traffic jam,” explains Karpman, “and he looks around out his window, and gets a bingo idea of what he can do. And it has to do with found objects — traffic cones, motorcycles ... what you would find on a street in Queens, and how you might use that within the context of a symphony orchestra piece. So, think tuning motorcycles, hubcaps as cymbals ... 'Stomp' meets Beethoven.” 

For another episode, featuring Wallace Shawn as a guest pianist, Karpman arranged a mashup of Franz Liszt’s tone poem, “Prometheus,” and his B-minor piano sonata. A third piece, which didn’t end up in the show, was a wild concoction of famous classical pieces timed with cell phone alarms and ringtones. 

Meanwhile, Hailey — the oboist played by Lola Kirke — is becoming a conductor this season, and she’s determined to program music written by women. She even talks to the ghosts of some under-appreciated women composers from the past. She goes to a conducting competition in Japan, where she encounters an unfortunate reality. 

“Part of the legacy of these competitions is that they’re gatekeepers,” says this season’s showrunner, Will Graham. “There have been so few female finalists. There’s various different stories for why that is, but one incredible story that we heard is that there was one year a few years ago at a major competition where there were three women finalists — three out of three. And everyone was sort of patting themselves on the back, like, Oh, isn’t this great! And then ultimately none of them were given an award. No one was deemed good enough at the end of the day. 

“So, why is that? That’s part of the question that we’re asking,” says Graham — and the show is answering, with its own utopia of female representation. “On 'Mozart in the Jungle,' almost all of our major musical collaborators have been women.” 

This season, they commissioned new music not only by Karpman, but also Missy Mazzoli, Paola Prestini — and Caroline Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and has forged a unique identity in the classical world, even collaborating with Kanye West.

Shaw even appears in the new season as herself.

But why do we have to escape into a fictional world to find women composers and conductors? 

“If you’re not looking for women composers, or you don’t see them, then you don’t think they exist,” suggests Karpman. “There was that myth forever: Oh, there just aren’t any women composers. Well, now we know that that’s just hogwash, and it always has been.” 

Karpman, who has written scores for film and television for 30 years, is the founding president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers She says women composers do exist, but they haven’t been getting the gigs that the men have. And it’s a vicious cycle, because when there isn’t a woman on the podium or the program, Karpman says: “It’s a tacit ‘no’ to every girl who goes to any orchestra concert.”

“Whether they know they’re receiving a ‘no’ or not. If they have no role models, then there’s no place for them to go. So that means you’re shutting off a whole range of possibilities to all your young concertgoers. And it’s bad for boys, too, and it’s bad for men. So it needs to stop.” 

Does an Amazon Prime series have any power to move the needle? Karpman thinks it does. She points to the familiar composer and conductor archetypes in the show: Thomas, in the Bernstein mold, and Gael Garcia Bernal’s character, Rodrigo, modeled after the L.A. Phil’s Gustavo Dudamel — and to the new possibility that Lola Kirke’s character could provide. 

“If you have this third person who comes in, this young woman who becomes a wonderful conductor and a thoughtful and great and respected musician, then, yes,” she says. “If she becomes the third in that trilogy of what we see as what a conductor looks like, or what a composer looks like, then I think you might have the chance of moving the needle — at least there’s something to look at that looks like what we look like.”

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