Dennis Prager conducted the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra last Wednesday night, and what had threatened to become another dispiriting episode in the culture wars turned instead into an evening of passionate advocacy for high culture and classical music. Santa Monica is one of the most liberal cities in California, so it was not wholly surprising that when the orchestra’s conductor invited Prager, a conservative talk radio host, to conduct a Haydn symphony for an orchestral fundraiser, a rebellion broke out among some musicians and the city’s political class. Two violinists in the ensemble, both UCLA professors, penned a letter suggesting that their fellow musicians boycott the upcoming performance. “A concert with Dennis Prager would normalize hatred and bigotry,” wrote Professors Andrew Apter and Michael Chwe in their March 27, 2017, letter. A webpage asked readers to urge their friends not to attend the concert, since attending would help “normalize bigotry in our community.” Local politicians weighed in. Councilman Kevin McKeown warned that the orchestra’s decision to invite Prager may “affect future community support for the Symphony.” Mayor Ted Winterer sniffed that he had “certainly . . . not encouraged anyone to attend.”
Fortunately for the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, the boycott attempt, despite sympathetic coverage in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, was a dud. And the concert was a rousing success that ideally won new converts to classical music and to the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra itself.
On Wednesday evening, no protesters showed up outside or inside Disney Hall, Frank Gehry’s famed curvilinear eruption of steel designed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The orchestra’s affable full-time conductor Guido Lamell polled the house, virtually full, before the music began. How many audience members were Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra attendees? he asked. A good number of people clapped in affirmation, leading Lamell to offer his sympathies for their having made the “cross-country trip” from Los Angeles’s Westside to downtown. How many were attending their first classical concert? Another burst of applause. Then came the key demographic question: Are there any fans of Dennis Prager here? The response was thunderous. “OK, I get the message,” Lamell laughed. “I won’t keep you away from him for too long.”
Lamell opened the program with a lively reading of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro overture, which he rightly introduced as one of the greatest opera overtures of all time (actually, its only competitor for first place is the Don Giovanni overture). Then he turned over the podium to Prager. Two string players joined the welcome, clapping with their free hand on their knee. Prager told the audience about attending his first classical music concert, which brought him to tears and led to a lifelong love affair with Haydn. The Classical period, he said, represents “controlled passion,” in contrast with the Romantics, who did not control theirs—yet passion will break out in the fourth movement of this Haydn symphony as well, Prager explained. Wonderfully, Prager had chosen a work from the criminally underperformed middle period of Haydn’s prodigious symphonic output. These so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies contain some of Haydn’s most pathos-filled, dramatic writing, and the Symphony No. 51 in B-flat major, composed in 1771, was no exception. It opens innocently enough with a brief, quizzical exchange between frisky strings and mournful horns before bursting forth into agonizingly poignant and dark harmonies. Cleverly syncopated passages in the first movement make the rhythm tricky. Major and minor keys interweave, adumbrating Schubert’s bittersweet longing.
Prager conducted ably enough, keeping the ensemble together and pacing the fourth movement in accordance with Haydn’s Allegro marking, unlike the late Christopher Hogwood, who took the movement at a quixotically stately pace. Reading—and leading from—an orchestral score, one of the most complex architectures of the human mind, is a prodigious challenge. But Prager seemed to have the basics down, undoubtedly helped by the caliber of the musicians themselves. Boycott organizer Michael Chwe reported to the Los Angeles Times afterwards that over a dozen players had stayed away, but such a rate of attrition was normal for this volunteer orchestra, Lamell had earlier said. The absences were not noticeable, and most critically, the woodwind and brass sections contained the full complement of musicians called for in the score. Indeed, not only were the orchestra’s two hornists in attendance, they were also supplemented by a flugelhorn not even written into the piece. This addition of a higher-register brass instrument presumably served as insurance for the symphony’s fiendishly difficult and exposed horn writing, which takes the instrument into its highest (and lowest) registers, sometimes through demanding triplet arpeggiation. The oboes are key in the second movement, floating languorously above a string pulse to create the same time-suspended melodic beauty as Così fan tutte’s dream-like ensembles.
After the symphony concluded, Prager, breathless and patting himself down with a handkerchief, provided a brief demonstration of Haydn’s genius, in the tradition of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. He asked the basses and celli to play the agitated G minor section in the rondo finale movement. Then the orchestra played that same passage without the basses and celli. Finally, Prager put the instruments back together again, eliciting delighted applause from the audience, whose ears had been primed to hear the layering of voices.
Prager bantered with the musicians, asking a few when and why they took up their instruments. The principal cellist, Michael Kaufman, said that he started at four because his best friend was already playing the cello. “You’re not normal!” Prager exclaimed. “Not only did you want to play the cello at age four, but your friend did, too. Where are you from?” Cleveland, Kaufman answered. “That explains it,” Prager said. The ribbing went both ways. Prager asked the principal bassist, Jack Cousin, if he felt ignored because conductors don’t even look at the basses. “Actually, the best conductors do look at us,” Cousin said, slyly adding after a pause, “and you did as well.”
Lamell, who plays violin with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, joined in for the Haydn. Afterward, Prager quizzed him, too, about his early instrumental experience. Lamell rebelled at age eight from his violin lessons, he said, but his parents kept up the pressure. “It’s hard for a parent to push; I, as a parent, have not been that strong. I’m grateful that my own parents did, so, thank you Dad!” Memo to parents: give your children music lessons and make them persist. They won’t regret it.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Prager returned to the stage at the end of the evening, after Lamell had conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Whether intentionally or not, the concert at that point took on a historical cast, imitating the bizarre potpourri of high and low that characterized nineteenth-century concerts. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, for example, was interrupted after its first movement at its Viennese premiere so that the violinist could play one of his own compositions—on one string, while holding his violin upside down. Only after this parlor trick concluded did Beethoven’s new concerto proceed to its second movement. At the Disney Hall encore, Lamell and Prager led the audience in “America the Beautiful”—with Lamell on musical saw and Prager on accordion.
Lamell and the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra’s board are to be congratulated for standing by Prager against the opposition. In the program notes, Lamell offered a thoughtful response to the boycott controversy. Prager loves music “with every fiber of his being,” the conductor wrote. “He is also an outspoken political commentator and some of his views are controversial. However, politics changes constantly, ideas evolve. Music, in contrast, is eternal. I believe Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven will be celebrated forever while the politics of our day will change with the wind.”
But Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven will be celebrated only if there is an audience. Audience-building is the biggest challenge facing classical music today. While the supply of astoundingly accomplished musicians keeps expanding, lackluster public demand for classical music threatens this monumental expression of the human soul. The Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra is already performing an invaluable service by playing most of its concerts for free. But if Prager can bring more listeners to classical music, any orchestra should get down on its knees in gratitude. There was no “normalization of hatred and bigotry” at Disney Hall on Wednesday night, just a celebration of greatness that, one hopes, will be infectious.
Photo Courtesy of Santa Monica Symphony