Dennis Prager draws classical newbies, and a musicians' boycott, at Disney Hall concert

"This is something you haven't seen too often," Guido Lamell, music director of the Santa Monica Symphony, said Wednesday night during the encore for the orchestra's summer fundraiser, the ensemble's Walt Disney Concert Hall debut.

Lamell grabbed a bow and musical saw from under the podium and then conservative radio show host Dennis Prager strapped on an accordion for "America the Beautiful." The sold-out audience was encouraged to sing along.

The scene was just the latest in a drama that started with the announcement that Prager would guest-conduct part of the concert. Given some of Prager's inflammatory views and past statements about gays, liberals and others, more than a dozen musicians in the orchestra boycotted the concert, violinist Michael Chwe said.

Chwe was one of the signatories of a letter from March saying that a concert featuring him would help "normalize hatred," damaging the orchestra's trust within the community.

The Santa Monica Symphony, a mostly volunteer orchestra of local musicians, relies on donations and grants. When it reportedly ran into a budget shortfall this season, Lamell called on Prager to help fill the coffers.

Prager, a longtime fan of Haydn, guest-conducted the concert's centerpiece, the rarely performed Haydn Symphony No. 51. Lamell led the orchestra in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" Overture and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

"This is one of the most exciting evenings of my life," Lamell told the enthusiastic crowd. He then asked how many people came to see the orchestra from Santa Monica. There was a smattering of applause.

"It's like going cross-country," Lamell joked of the traffic on the way to downtown L.A. "Are there any fans of Dennis Prager here?" The audience roared. "OK, I get the message," Lamell said. "Still, it's a great honor to invite Prager here. I'm a big fan of his."

Indeed, Lamell called Prager "a great man, leader and friend." But for Lamell and the audience, the night seemed to be all about music — and Disney Hall, which many had never been in before. At the concert's start, Lamell asked the audience, "How many are hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time?" The applause indicated a significant number.

"My greatest hope is that you'll come back, put classical music in your life," Lamell said. "I invited Dennis because for so many years he's promoted classical music. I have not witnessed anyone else show such joy and passion."

Prager proved an amiable host, amusing and cordial with the musicians. He introduced the main event, the Haydn symphony, by noting that the composer wrote 104 symphonies. "Too many," he joked. "He should have written nine. I feel I'm his guy to make him more known."

Prager hitched up his pants to some warm laughter before he gave the downbeat. A page or so into the piece, he closed the score, later opening it again.

During the finale, there was an odd bit of business among two cellists. Did they also lose their way? Like Buster Keaton in Chaplin's "Limelight," they fumbled with the pages of the score, which kept slipping to the side of the stand. At one point, they stopped playing altogether.

After the Haydn, Prager led the orchestra on a mini-tour of Haydn's musical mind. He asked the musicians to play a section of the symphony without the cellos and basses, then with them. "All of this was going on in one man's brain," Prager said. "It's extraordinary."

Prager added that Haydn represents an ideal of the world "where we could all sublimate our egos for something that is good." The audience applauded warmly. Someone shouted, "Thank you Dennis for neutralizing all the turbulence."

The hall remained full for the concert's second half, featuring the orchestra's fleet rendition of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

Lamell had told the audience to feel free to applaud between movements or anywhere they felt like applauding. That offer backfired when they began clapping during a quiet transition in the symphony. Lamell turned to the audience and gently put a finger to his lips.

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An earlier version of this article misidentified the two cellists who fumbled with the score and stopped playing. The article cited Andrea Comsky and Niall Ferguson based on concert program notes, but Comsky was sitting elsewhere and Ferguson was among the musicians who boycotted the concert.
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