Radio host Dennis Prager likes to present himself as sort of a thinking person's right-winger. With his dulcet baritone on the air and in his print columns, he seems to advance the viewpoint that America would be healthier, more pure and more civilized if his targets—gays, Muslims, feminists, "the left"—would only acknowledge that they're outliers and assimilate into a society that is Judeo-Christian at heart. He delivers his message in a tone redolent more of sorrow than censure; think of it as Rush Limbaugh dialed in volume down from 11 to maybe a 5.
That makes Prager an odd, even bizarre, choice to headline an Aug. 16 fund-raising concert by the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra. At the Disney Hall event, Prager is booked to conduct Symphony No. 51 by Franz Joseph Haydn, a favorite piece by his favorite composer.
Sure enough, the event has provoked a furor.
Several of the orchestra's musicians began circulating an open letter in March declaring that they wouldn't perform at the concert, asking fellow members to become "fully informed about [Prager's] political opinions" and urging their friends "to not attend this concert, which helps normalize bigotry in our community." The letter, which includes links to Prager columns or published statements, recently was posted online, along with comments from supporters of the orchestra expressing dismay about the event.
"There's lots of controversy," acknowledges Guido Lamell, the orchestra's music director and conductor, who tendered the invitation to Prager. "I'll admit that's a huge surprise to me." So far, seven musicians have said they won't perform, he says, leaving 70 still on the roster.
Prager responded to the letter on Aug. 1 with a column on the conservative website Townhall.com alleging that he is the target of "a campaign to disinvite me" staged by "the illiberal left." This exaggerates the case in two important ways. First, there's no campaign to "disinvite" Prager. The signatories have simply said they won't participate, and urge their friends not to go. Michael Chwe, a UCLA professor of political science and violinist in the symphony, and one of the original signatories, says he hasn't even been in touch with the orchestra's management or board other than to try to pass on to them emailed messages of concern from audience members.
"We never asked him to be disinvited, we've never asked for the concert to be canceled, we've never asked for anything to be banned," he says. "That's a complete fabrication on his part."
Prager told me by email: "These musicians have asked all other members of the orchestra not to play when I conduct and that no one come to the concert. That is not to "disinvite," but it's a distinction without a difference. It amounts to the same thing – stop the concert from taking place if I am the conductor." (His responses to my questions can be found here in their entirety.) But equating a protest with a campaign to "disinvite" is a common tactic of speakers or performers facing such protests, and a dishonest one, as I've reported in the past.
"We're not asking everybody not to attend and not to play," Andrew Apter, another violinist and signatory and a professor of history and anthropology at UCLA, observed during an on-air dialogue with Prager during the latter's radio program Monday. "We're asking those who feel offended by a few of your bigoted ideas...to know what they're getting into, and if they're not comfortable with the politics here, then don't attend."
Second, it's Prager himself who pumped up the political component of the controversy. The protesters focused on his specific statements about LGBTQ folks, immigrants, Muslims, and "leftism"; he can hardly object to his views being highlighted, since purveying them is how he earns his livelihood. Prager, however, reconfigured this as an attack by the left as a class against conservatives as a community. His piece was headlined, "Can a Conservative Conduct an Orchestra?" and stated the theme of the protest as "conservatives should not even be allowed to make music." Tying the protest to one of his hobby horses, the leftism of university faculties, he wrote, "Readers will not be surprised to learn that two of the three organizers are college professors." (The reference was to Chwe and Apter.)
That leads to the question: What was the Santa Monica Symphony thinking?
Concerts by the nearly all-volunteer group, which is supported by donations and grants, customarily take place for free in an auditorium at Santa Monica High School. But Lamell told the orchestra members in a March 26 email announcing the Prager invitation that donations are down this year, presaging "a serious shortfall."
Lamell, a violinist of distinction who has been a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1979 and music director of the Santa Monica Symphony since 2012, told the musicians that he had invited Prager "to bring in the largest possible audience." He identified Prager as "a virtual 'superstar' in his realm," with a following of "tens or even hundreds of thousands locally, and millions nationally."
He also cautioned that Prager is "a controversial figure" and acknowledged that some of the musicians might not wish to be involved in the concert. But he asserted that while Prager "is usually immersed in political discourse, this would not be a political event….Music is his true passion."
Lamell told me he views Prager's appearance, which will be sandwiched between performances of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" overture and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony conducted by Lamell, as something of a cultural ambassadorship.
"His knowledge of Haydn is second to none," he said. (He backed off a bit when I said that sounded implausible, given the breadth and depth of scholarship of Haydn, who is not only one of the most prolific and popular composers in the Western canon, but was a mentor to Mozart and Beethoven.)
Although Prager has done publicity appearances with community orchestras around the Southland, and a performance of the "Star Spangled Banner" with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1994, Lamell acknowledged that Prager is not a trained conductor; he told the orchestra that he would "coach him somewhat in conducting since he is actually an amateur in that realm." He says the symphony's board signed off on the invitation. None of the officers or board members I reached out to returned my calls or emails.
Some of the musicians hadn't heard of Prager before Lamell mentioned his name, and were aghast when they went online and discovered his oeuvre. "I Googled him and realized, Oh my God, we can't do a concert with this guy," recalls Chwe. "What's it going to say about our values? People are going to associate us with him forever."
Lamell and Prager assert that Prager's political views can and should be set aside in the name of allowing the music to "bring people together," as the latter wrote in his Townhall piece. "We've had many guest conductors at the L.A. Phil," Lamell says, "and it's never a point of interest what their political positions may be."
Yet this is plainly different. Guest conductors are invited to the L.A. Philharmonic podium today in recognition of their professional stature, so their personal viewpoints are necessarily subordinate; Prager was invited explicitly to exploit his "following" for money, at a concert where tickets will go for as much as $250. "I even think that many will come who actually aren't necessarily interested in classical music," Lamell told the musicians, "but will do anything they can just to be in the same room with him."
That struck some of the musicians as a misreading of the orchestra's relationship with its community, which is known for its liberalism. "Our audience in Santa Monica doesn't seem like a particularly great base for Dennis Prager politically," says Jeff Schwartz, a bass player and signatory to the letter.
Nor is it surprising that many in the orchestra find Prager's views noxious. Prager's generally passive-aggressive approach on-air and in print involves his stating as a given that conditions and beliefs such as homosexuality, gay marriage and adoption, and "leftism" are bad for civilization. He presents that viewpoint behind a scrim of cultured rationality, of which his devotion to classical music is a part.
But his extremism doesn't lie far beneath the surface. When Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, announced in 2006 that he would take his oath of office on the Koran rather than the Bible, Prager threw a conniption, ginning up a wholly imaginary standard in which the Bible is the only suitable book upon which to take the oath: "What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book," he wrote; "all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book…. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."
In a column for the National Review last year, Prager identified "leftism" as a "terminal cancer in the American bloodstream and soul…. We therefore see voting for Donald Trump as political chemotherapy needed to prevent our demise." When Apter informed him on the air that the terminology of a diseased "bloodstream" and the need for "political chemotherapy" was not neutral, but rather a racialized metaphor for extermination, he countered: "I don't think that it's important for me to say that 'bloodstream' didn't mean 'race,' and 'chemotherapy' was not a call for chemical genocide."
Prager told me by email that the orchestra members' criticism of his views involved quotes taken out of context: "There is almost no thinker who has written a million words, a thousand articles, and seven books on provocative subjects who cannot have five lines extracted allegedly depicting him as hateful, etc." Yet the quotes in the musicians' letter are accurate, and the context is provided in every case by a link to the original.
What disturbs some of the protesting musicians is that this controversy was wholly unnecessary. "There are so many celebrities in West L.A.," says Schwartz, "that it doesn't seem necessary to get somebody who comes with so much baggage."
Prager can't take the stage on Aug. 16 without his political views trailing him like a miasma. It's possible that, as Lamell anticipates, his audience will come along and fatten the Santa Monica Symphony's coffers. The question, says Chwe, is whether that will deliver longer-lasting damage to the orchestra's brand.