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Oboist in the fast lane

The prim and proper world of classical music has a seamy and steamy side, fully detailed in a new book by Blair Tindall.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published July 3, 2005

Blair Tindall doesn't seem to be suffering any regret about her book, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music, in which she tells all about her swinging life as a freelance oboist in New York in the 1980s and '90s.

Well, at least not too much regret. Tindall's 84-year-old mother had a problem with the book's cover, an illustration that depicts her daughter as a sexy nude, oboe in hand.

"My mother wasn't too happy with it," Tindall said. "I thought the cover was pretty clever, because it's a spoof on Rousseau's painting, The Dream."

Tindall was speaking last week from her hometown, Chapel Hill, N.C., where she had just embarked on a cross-country book-signing tour that will run into August. She's optimistic that people will pay attention to her critique of the classical music business, but the gossip is irresistible.

Exploding the stereotype of classical musicians as overcultivated fops in formal wear, Tindall chronicles her sex life with candor and lusty flair, relating how she often got jobs through sleeping with musicians who did the hiring for orchestras. At one point, she was juggling affairs with three oboists, two of them married.

She opens her book with a group of musicians snorting cocaine to Wagner's Gotterdammerung. She describes taking the stage-fright drug, the beta-blocker Inderal, when auditioning for a coveted oboe position with a symphony orchestra or playing a recital.

Tindall changes the names of some of the men she slept with who are cited in her book, but not all of them. Her relationship with the late Samuel Sanders, Itzhak Perlman's pianist, is recounted in intimate detail. Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops and Utah Symphony Orchestra, allegedly had an adulterous fling with the oboist that ended up in her book. Lockhart issued a statement in June denying there was anything but friendship between them.

Mozart in the Jungle is laced with sordid stories that debunk the prim and proper image of classical musicians, such as the downfall of the cellist in the American Symphony Orchestra who wound up as a prostitute to support her drug addiction. The Allendale Apartments, a haven for musicians on the Upper West Side and Tindall's home for more than 20 years, is depicted as a once glorious edifice that is now little more than a crumbling, cockroach-ridden slum, an apt, if heavyhanded, metaphor for the classical music world.

Tindall, who acknowledges Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City as literary inspiration, looks back on her romantic exploits with some embarrassment today. "Office romance is just a bad idea, no matter how you slice it," she said. "There were some pretty stupid mistakes on my part."

On the other hand, sex does sell. Tindall said Atlantic Monthly Press increased the first printing from 8,500 to 12,000 copies, presumably on the basis of prepublication buzz. She hopes her more serious message doesn't get lost.

"The book was really meant to use the vehicle of a memoir to address a whole list of issues in classical music, everything from the decimation of the population of musicians from AIDS to funding to conservatory training to what Broadway is like to what a debut recital will do for you," she said.

Tindall, 45, who grew up in North Carolina and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, frequently portrays herself as lost in the music-business jungle, but she actually had a pretty successful career, playing in top-level ensembles like the Orchestra of St. Luke's and Orpheus, the conductorless chamber orchestra. For a decade she was a regular substitute with the New York Philharmonic, and she experienced such artistic highs as playing third oboe in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring under Leonard Bernstein. Her debut recital at Carnegie Hall's recital hall was warmly reviewed in the New York Times when most such musical coming-of-age rituals were ignored by the press.

But Tindall was never able to win a position as full-time oboist in a symphony orchestra, despite taking 25 auditions around the country, from the Philharmonic to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Pursuing the dream cost her $30,000 on flights, hotels, lessons and missed work, most of it put on a credit card.

"The problem with me was that that was the only goal that I could think of, and I don't think I really wanted it in the same way that so many people desperately want it," she said. "I think a lot of my problem was just that I wasn't sure how I had gotten into music. I'd been good at it from high school on, so I just followed this trail of rewards, but the full-time music career turned out not to be the thing for me.

"One of my grandparents always said that the maddest you can get is at yourself. I'm mostly angry at myself and don't blame the business for my continuing to believe what was so clearly unlikely for me, that I would land an orchestra job. They're so competitive. Only the very best people win. Although I'm a good oboe player, there are a lot of better oboe players out there."

The overriding fact of Tindall's career was the shrinkage of the classical music business. A lot of Mozart in the Jungle is devoted to her analysis of the problems of symphony orchestras, and she hauls out the usual culprits, such as conductors and administrators who are paid fortunes while rank-and-file musicians barely get by. She argues that supply and demand have gotten out of whack.

"I hate to say it because I don't want to deny any of my colleagues work or reduce the amount of culture out there, but I just think the number of concerts is a problem," Tindall said. "The audience has increased slightly over the last 20 years, but not nearly enough to fill up the large number of concerts being produced. It's definitely a contentious subject with orchestras, because who wants to reduce their season and their paycheck? But we've got to find a bigger audience or some better way to utilize the orchestra."

Then there's the issue of concert etiquette, which seems absurdly stuffy to Tindall. "I think the presentation of concerts needs an update. The dress seems so offputting, and sometimes it takes so long to rearrange the stage between pieces. It's all so formal that it seems there's almost a barrier between the stage and the audience."

When her symphony orchestra prospects dimmed, Tindall turned to Broadway, where she could make a decent living. In the early 1990s, Broadway work paid $1,100 a week plus generous benefits. Some of the most amusing episodes in her book describe her days and nights in the orchestra pit for Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and other shows, playing the same music over and over for years.

"As Paul Bogaev, our conductor, started the overture, I spread the New Yorker across my stand," she wrote of playing for Aspects of Love. "At first I read only during the rests, like everyone else, but soon I discovered an unusual skill possessed by about 10 percent of Broadway musicians. I could read a magazine while playing my part simultaneously."

It was 1999 when Tindall made the break from her musical career, the culmination of a laborious process of self-examination and taking classes that led to her applying to four graduate school programs in journalism, and getting accepted by them all. She earned a master's degree at Stanford and went on to write for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Sierra magazine, Yoga Journal and other publications. She has been a critic for the Contra Costa Times in California and the Charleston Post and Courier in South Carolina.

And how similar does she find classical music and journalism? "Awfully similar," she said, laughing. "But at least with writing, you don't need an orchestra to play in. You can make your own future."

Tindall continues as a musician. As recently as April, she was playing oboe in the orchestras of Wicked and Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, but she has sold her apartment in New York and is moving to Los Angeles to try screenwriting. She has a second book in the works, on '60s supermodel Verushka.

Mozart in the Jungle will no doubt be panned for its sensationalism, and Tindall's take on the music business sometimes reads like a term paper. But her memoir of the freelancer's harried, marginal existence is a valuable reality check to the glamorous myth of classical music.

"I just wanted to start a dialogue about classical music and what's right and what's wrong and how we can make it better," she said.

"I don't want to be a whiny lifelong critic of classical music, because I happen to love classical music and want to share it with other people. I don't think it's dying at all. I think we just need to find some way to make it a more casual, everyday occurrence for more people."

[Last modified June 30, 2005, 10:46:03]

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