For a while, it seemed like the lasting legacy of oboist and Mozart in the Jungle author Blair Tindall, whose April 12 death was confirmed late last week, would be that she had a short-lived, invalid marriage to Bill Nye that ended with the Science Guy taking out a restraining order against her.
According to Nye’s description of the inciting events, an estranged Tindall had shown up at the house they had shared “dressed in black and wearing a black hat,” and carrying two bottles full of herbicide. Tindall explained she had intended to use it on the rose bushes that she had cultivated when they lived together: “I became very angry, and could only think of destroying the rose garden, so he couldn’t give another woman the roses which I had cared for.” Two years later, Tindall violated the restraining order and was ordered to pay Nye $57,000 in legal fees. By 2012, she had yet to pay.
Had all of this played out between Tindall and, say, a fellow classical musician or journalist, the story would never have merited multiple posts on gossip behemoth TMZ. But Nye’s pop-cultural cache, combined with a Xennial nostalgia for his beloved PBS persona, made it not only a multi-year headline, but also one that tipped the scales in his favor. Tindall, especially for those who weren’t familiar with her 2005 book or related journalism, came off as the Crazy Ex.
For those who had read Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, these events also confirmed a version of Tindall that many contemporary critics pointed to in their reviews of the divisive memoir. In the New York Times, Anne Midgette noted that “the book’s biggest weakness is that it smacks of sour grapes. By writing it as an autobiography, Ms. Tindall seems to be saying that everything that went wrong in her life is the fault of the classical music world.” An unattributed review for the New Yorker conceded that the book’s critique of the American classical music industry—one that was unable to support the number of musicians it trains—“is difficult to refute,” but added that the facts and statistics Tindall weaves into her narrative are overshadowed by her stories of “sleep[ing] her way to the bottom.”
This may be one of the reasons why, in adapting Mozart in the Jungle as an eponymous Amazon Prime series that launched in 2014, developers Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Alex Timbers, and Paul Weitz held the critical aspects of Tindall’s story at arm’s length. Both members of a cinematic dynasty—with its familial links to both Anton Coppola and Riccardo Muti—it’s not especially surprising that Roman Coppola and Schwartzman would want to celebrate rather than excoriate the industry’s elite. Schwartzman had also optioned Mozart shortly after it was published, and before Tindall’s public break with Nye. In the intervening years, it may have seemed prudent to put some distance between the option and its author. While Tindall served as a consultant for the show, her name did not come up in Gael García Bernal’s 2016 Golden Globe acceptance speech when he won for his starring role. Within the classical music world, the show was a success that gave cotton-candy-ish cameos to Alan Gilbert, Gustavo Dudamel, Joshua Bell, Emanuel Ax, and Lang Lang. Lang Lang wields a customized ping-pong paddle; Bell bowls with a ball emblazoned with Mozart’s portrait; Ax is a master at Dance Dance Revolution.
“Their participation in the show is fun, perhaps because it puffs up the mythology that Tindall was trying to deflate,” Aaron Bady wrote in a 2016 piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, adding: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Amazon’s version is a point-by-point response to Tindall’s critique.”
Tindall’s critique included the fault with classical music in America’s tendency towards “explosive growth without a realistic mission, few accessible resources, and the simultaneous isolation and elevation of a foreign [i.e., non-American in origin—Ed.] art form above the comprehension of those who were expected to support it.” She cites sex and drugs as key to networking as a freelance musician in New York in the ’80s and ’90s. She also names names when it comes to sexual misconduct, including her own teacher (and former principal oboist at the New York Philharmonic) Joseph Robinson who, while Tindall was still a high-school-aged student in North Carolina, allegedly commented on her breasts and would place her hand on his abdomen—“right below the belt”—as a means of demonstrating proper breathing technique.
On this last point, Tindall writes “this didn’t feel right,” even in the ’70s—an age where we lacked a vocabulary for sexual harassment and an understanding of the power imbalance in teacher-student dynamics. Her misgivings are confirmed when a classmate says that her teacher demonstrated breathing techniques without any physical touch. “Each Thursday at two I still had to put my hand on Robinson’s belly, just below the belt,” Tindall adds of these lessons, which continued when both moved to New York—he to join the New York Philharmonic, she to study with him at the Manhattan School of Music, after graduating a conservatory equivalent of high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts (now University of North Carolina School of the Arts).
Mozart was published in 2005, just a year after “Sex and the City” aired its final episode, which lent a scandalous edge to her descriptions of sexual encounters with colleagues, mentors, and professors. “Older girls had already warned me to take the maulings if I wanted any more orchestra parts,” she writes after allegedly being fondled by Hungarian conductor Nicholas Harsányi in her first months at NCSA. “Musicality was subjective, and a lack of cooperation with a teacher, whether sexual, academic, or interpersonal, could be described as bad intonation, boring phrasing, or even weak talent to an administrator with no knowledge of music.” Even consensual affairs, such as one with NCSA “campus Casanova” Philip Dunigan, feature shades of doubt in Tindall’s retelling: Their first time in bed, underscored by “Liebestod” on the record player, “felt a little weird since Philip was old enough to be my father.” (Dunigan later gives Tindall a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita.)
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Even pianist Samuel Sanders, who starts off as a lover for Tindall and ends up a lifelong friend, champion, and one of the few “good guys” in the book, isn’t squeaky clean: While living in the Allendale, a roach-infested, musician-dominated apartment complex on the Upper West Side, Sanders would spend each evening in an apartment in the venerated, Central-Park–adjacent San Remo, practicing on “a rich man’s Steinway.” In exchange, Tindall writes, “the man had access to Sam’s nubile Juilliard students. A female Chinese pianist without a work visa had just moved in with the man, trading sex for financial support.”
“It was all there in black and white, and yet we absorbed the egregious misbehavior of her teachers as par for the course,” says Midgette in a phone call from earlier this week, reflecting on how the context around Tindall’s book has changed while still remaining eclipsed. “The fact that we could read it and be so blithely accepting of it is really sobering and a mark of just how bad things have been in the classical music world. It didn’t ring the kind of alarm bells that it probably should have, and she certainly did deserve credit for that.”
As her life according to TMZ suggested, Tindall herself wasn’t an irreproachable Cassandra. Her own autobiographical self-portrait is full of flaws, wrinkles, and warts. She mentions her own alcoholism (a condition also noted on the coroner’s report for her death), and hints at a sense of complicity in her initial unwillingness to recognize “the link between the sex and the job offers.” She also threw other women under the bus: In one chapter on the marketing of young female musicians, she describes violinist Vanessa Mae as a “Singaporean sexpot fiddler” and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as “classical music’s Courtney Love” without any discernible irony. In a 2008 report on sexual harassment in universities for the Des Moines Register, she writes of the harassment she suffered at the hands of Robinson: “I felt degraded and violated, while my parents were paying handsome tuition for the privilege.” Yet two paragraphs later, recalling her own time as a journalism professor at Stanford, she describes walking by a colleague’s office and seeing “one of my 19-year-old undergraduates [seated] across from him, her legs draped seductively across his desk. He cowered in the farthest corner.”
None of this is symmetrical with the systematic abuses of power that Tindall unquestionably documented in 2005. Yet—like the most salacious bits of the legacies of Monica Lewinsky or Tonya Harding—it became the dominant narrative of Tindall’s. Even her New York Times obituary ran under the headline: “Blair Tindall, Whose Music Memoir Scandalized, Dies at 63.” And that’s the real tragedy: In the pre-#MeToo era, when we had yet to shift from feminism’s third wave into its fourth, it was easy—even forgivable—to miss what Tindall left hidden in plain sight. In 2023, we’re clearly still missing it. ¶
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the New Yorker‘s review of Mozart in the Jungle to Alex Ross. Ross did not write this review, which ran without a byline. We regret the error.
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