The news that conservative commentator Dennis Prager would conduct the Santa Monica Symphony was met with dissent from some of the symphony’s volunteer musicians. But at least for the duration of the Aug. 16 performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the sounds of classical music drowned out any controversy that preceded the show.
“Just curious, are there any fans of Dennis here tonight?” the symphony’s music director, Guido Lamell, asked the sellout crowd, to uproarious applause from a great majority of the audience.
Prager’s conservative views, aired on his daily radio show and in his regular contributions to the Jewish Journal, put him at odds with the political mainstream in overwhelmingly liberal Santa Monica. So when a group of volunteer musicians objected to his planned appearance at the fundraising concert, encouraging their fellow players to sit it out, “I cannot say that I was shocked,” he told the Journal by email.
But for the radio host, a longtime classical music buff, the thrill of conducting a 72-piece orchestra in a world-famous venue overwhelmed any controversy, he said.
“Disney Hall is such an extraordinary honor that it wasn’t even on my bucket list,” he wrote in the email, referring to the renowned concert hall in downtown Los Angeles.
The hall is a considerable step up from the symphony’s regular venue at Santa Monica High School, where it offers free concerts to the public. In spite of that, some musicians were put off when Lamell announced in March that Prager would take the baton at the symphony’s Summer Gala Concert, its first Disney Hall appearance.
“We believe that Dennis Prager’s publicly stated positions are fundamentally at odds with our community’s values and that the proposed concert would deeply damage our orchestra’s relationship with our community,” four symphony members wrote in an open letter posted online dated March 27.
The letter cited Prager’s opposition to gay marriage and multiculturalism, and his endorsement of President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions as stances that bring him in direct conflict with members of the orchestra and its community. Their statement drew a chorus of local figures and officials in solidarity, including a Santa Monica councilmember who called Prager a “bigoted hate-monger.”
UCLA political science professor and symphony violinist Michael Chwe, who co-authored the letter, worried that Prager’s appearance would permanently damage the symphony’s reputation, especially within the liberal community that makes up its regular audience.
“If people associate the Santa Monica Symphony with right-wing bigotry, it’s hard to fix that,” he told the Journal before the concert.
Lamell said in the March email announcing Prager’s appearance that it would help the symphony address a “serious shortfall” in its budget. But the reasoning left some musicians unconvinced.
“There are just a million celebrities, all sorts of musicians,” said Jeff Schwartz, a co-author of the letter. “I can’t believe there isn’t a less offensive person who wants to pose in front of the band with a stick for half an hour.”
Prager addressed his critics in the email to the Journal, describing the incident as an example of “how the intolerant were defeated.”
“Disney Hall was sold out in large measure because people are sick of the totalitarian silencing of conservatives,” he said.
Lamell told the Journal before the performance that he had no problem mustering a group of musicians from his roster of some 700 volunteers. Lamell, a 39-year member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said he wanted to expose his volunteers to the venue where he makes his living.
“I wanted them to have the privilege of playing in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and I have had far more people wishing to play than possibly can be accommodated,” he said.
He predicted that the symphonies would “overwhelm the political issues.”
“If I dare use this term, music trumps politics — absolutely,” he said.
A number of the musicians agreed.
Asked if he was endorsing Prager’s political views by playing the concert, violinist Steve Ravaglioli said, “No, absolutely not, because I don’t endorse his political views. I might endorse some of what he says, but I don’t I don’t feel like playing with him conducting is a political statement, period.”
Politics went unmentioned at the performance, where Lamell’s traditional choices of Mozart and Beethoven stood in contrast to Prager’s selection of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 51, a rarely performed piece with a notoriously difficult horn passage.
Prager promoted the performance beforehand on his radio show and his online video platform, PragerU, helping to sell out the venue’s more than 2,200 seats. A Haydn enthusiast, Prager intermittently mentions his love of classical music on the air and has been asked to conduct on a volunteer basis for several local orchestras. Previously, his most notable appearance was leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1994.
At the Aug. 16 performance, Prager led the orchestra through the four movements of the Haydn symphony before deconstructing the music, isolating each section one-by-one, first the cellos and basses, then the violins, then the horns and woodwinds, beaming with the enthusiasm of a kid with a shiny new toy. “This is awesome,” he told the audience.
After Lamell closed the program with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Prager surprised the crowd with an encore performance of “America the Beautiful” on the accordion, with Lamell accompanying him on a musical saw.
“We figured we’d try to do something you haven’t seen too often,” Lamell said.
The audience was livelier than those who normally show up to classical concerts, unrestrained from applauding between movements and calling out to the conductor.
“Thank you for neutralizing the turbulence, Dennis,” one audience member, Kenneth Rogers, called out audibly after the Haydn piece concluded. “How could anybody remain angry?”
Rogers told the Journal afterward he was referring to the controversy that preceded Prager’s appearance, as well as the controversy Prager faces on an almost daily basis. But, Rogers, a retired Los Angeles Unified high school teacher, said, “This is a wonderful forum to break from, as I put it, all the turbulence that’s out there.
“All the conservatives are out there in the audience, but there are quite a few liberals up there among the musicians,” he said. “I was kind of wondering what would happen tonight. Can’t we set aside our differences?”