Oboist Who Pulled Back the Curtain

Blair Alston Mercer Tindall, MA ’00

September 2023

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In the back of the orchestra pit at the 2002 Broadway production of Man of La Mancha, oboist Blair Tindall scribbled away at the pages of her memoir. “She knew that book was going to screw her freelance career,” says her friend Dana Pasewicz, a violinist who played alongside Tindall in New York City in the 1990s. 

Blair Tindall riding a carouselPhoto: Chris Sattlberger

When Tindall’s book, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, was published in 2005, the pill-popping, bed-hopping tale unraveled the classical music scene’s reputation for white-tie propriety. It then gained a second life as an Amazon Prime series, winning two Golden Globes. Backlash against the book damaged Tindall’s music career, but beyond the burned bridges, she found a new path.

Blair Alston Mercer Tindall, MA ’00, a Grammy-nominated oboist, journalist, and author, died of cardiovascular disease on April 12. She was 63.

Tindall began playing the oboe at age 8, when the band director at her elementary school doled out instruments. The double-reed woodwind “spoke my emotions more directly than my own voice,” she wrote in Mozart.

Although she was unexcited about a career in music, she decided to leave home at 14 to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts and, later, the Manhattan School of Music. Over a 25-year freelance career, she earned coveted contracts with Broadway shows, played principal oboe with the New York Philharmonic and six other orchestras, toured the country with top ensembles, and played for film, television, and radio soundtracks.

For Tindall, behind the concert-black facade were cocaine-fueled parties, misogynistic conductors, and an industry that exploited impoverished talent. “I got most of my jobs in bed,” she wrote in her book. Those jobs eventually lost their appeal. “The monotony of doing eight [Broadway] shows a week,” says Pasewicz. “It can be mind-numbing.”

Tindall started writing for the New York Times and applied to Stanford to study journalism. It was in visiting professor Dale Maharidge’s class that she first wrote about the ragged underbelly of her life as a classical musician. “I have students write a ‘secrets’ essay,” says Maharidge, now a professor of journalism at Columbia. Tindall’s draft revealed a fickle, desperate profession. Though she initially resisted the idea of turning the story into a book, that draft eventually became Mozart.

“I don’t think fame was very kind to her,” says Maharidge. Exposing the nefarious parts—and people—of the industry earned Tindall enemies; some critics dismissed her book as “sour grapes.” But she included the salacious parts so readers would stick with the exploration of the larger issues, she told New York Times Magazine in 2005.

Tindall wrote for Sierra magazine and other publications, and was a staff reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. In recent years, she studied film and TV development through UCLA’s extension program, and she and her fiancé, Chris Sattlberger, were working on a new show concept. “She was hoping to expand on Mozart and perhaps get more television work,” he says.

Over its four seasons, the series based on her book resulted in paid work for more than 800 musicians, Tindall said on the Empowering Musicians podcast in 2022.

Tindall’s wedding was planned for May 1. She is survived by her fiancé.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

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