Tak­ing up the ba­ton and de­bate

Con­ser­va­tive ra­dio host Den­nis Prager’s guest turn roils Santa Mon­ica Sym­phony.


The Santa Mon­ica Sym­phony will hold a gala in Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall on Aug. 16, and that has caught the un­likely at­ten­tion of the al­tright Bre­it­bart News web­site. Wel­come to cul­ture wars, 2017 style.

With con­ser­va­tive ra­dio show host Den­nis Prager host­ing Haydn’s Sym­phony No. 51, which he has been in­vited to con­duct as part of a pro­gram oth­er­wise led by the orches­tra’s mu­sic di­rec­tor, Guido Lamell, two vi­o­lin­ists are ask­ing that fel­low mu­si­cians in the orches­tra and mem­bers of the au­di­ence made un­com­fort­able by Prager’s po­si­tions on gays, Mus­lims and lib­er­als boy­cott the per­for­mance.

Prager’s re­sponse came in a Na­tional Re­view op-ed, “Can a Con­ser­va­tive Con­duct an Orches­tra?” He protests that it is no longer enough for lib­er­als to want to pre­vent con­ser­va­tives from speaking on cam­puses. Now “con­ser­va­tives should not even be al­lowed to make mu­sic.”

Can a con­ser­va­tive con­duct an orches­tra? Yes. Next ques­tion.

Can a public con­ser­va­tive con­duct an orches­tra? Prager amended the ques-

tion on his ra­dio show Mon­day when chal­lenged by An­drew Apter, one of the vi­o­lin­ists calling for the boy­cott. The an­swer re­mains yes, with the un­der­stand­ing that po­lit­i­cal con­text can­not be evaded.

Can a di­vi­sive public con­ser­va­tive am­a­teur mu­si­cian con­duct an orches­tra? That’s ask­ing for trou­ble.

It was not al­ways so, but or­ches­tras these days tend to be, in their play­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tion, more lib­eral than con­ser­va­tive. Once al­most ex­clu­sively white, male and Western, the in­sti­tu­tions have be­come in­creas­ingly di­verse in the last half­cen­tury.

There may still be con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing play­ers, but the orches­tra ideal is ev­ery­one work­ing to­ward a com­mon goal, and that is achieved far more suc­cess­fully in mu­sic than in other as­pects of mod­ern life, in­clud­ing mod­ern pol­i­tics.

It is also true that most con­duc­tors are likely lib­eral. Just the other day, for in­stance, Si­mon Rat­tle told the Guardian news­pa­per that he would have had sec­ond thoughts about his as­sum­ing the post of mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Lon­don Sym­phony next month had Brexit al­ready passed when he signed his con­tract.

But as al­ways, there are no­table ex­cep­tions. One of Ger­many’s most ac­claimed con­duc­tors, Chris­tian Thiele­mann, has de­fended PEGIDA, the far-right Ger­man na­tion­al­ist po­lit­i­cal move­ment that op­poses im­mi­gra­tion.

Prager’s sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent.

Rather than be­ing a cel­e­brated mu­si­cian, he has slen­der con­duct­ing cre­den­tials. A life­long clas­si­cal buff who stud­ied pi­ano, he states that he has taught him­self to read or­ches­tral scores (a sig­nif­i­cant skill) and that he has con­ducted sev­eral com­mu­nity or­ches­tras in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, as well as the L.A. Phil­har­monic at the Hol­ly­wood Bowl. The lat­ter was the na­tional an­them in 1994. Three years ago, he was host and em­cee for the Glen­dale Sym­phony Christ­mas Mu­sic Spectacular.

Con­duct­ing re­quires a spe­cial com­bi­na­tion of tal­ents as well as a vast amount of ex­pe­ri­ence. The skill to stand in front of a sea of play­ers and pick out ev­ery note in ev­ery in­stru­men­tal line in re­hearsal is over­whelm­ing. At the same time, a con­duc­tor must an­tic­i­pate what comes next and sig­nal the cues a nanosec­ond ahead of time. Try it some­time.

All the while you have to con­vince sea­soned play­ers that you know more than they do.

Prager’s choice among Haydn’s 104 ma­ture sym­phonies of the sel­dom­played No. 51 seems cu­ri­ous. Writ­ten in the early 1770s, it is one of the com­poser’s “en­ter­tain­ment sym­phonies,” which fol­lowed a pe­riod of Sturm und Drang sym­phonies. That move­ment op­posed the lib­eral or­tho­doxy of the Age of Rea­son, with stormy pas­sion, which you would think would be right up Prager’s al­ley.

But he may not want to take any chances, and his Haydn sym­phony doesn’t make many tech­ni­cal de­mands. It has the fur­ther ad­van­tage of — un­like Beethoven’s Fifth, with which Lamell will con­clude the pro­gram — be­ing ob­scure, giv­ing Prager in­ter­pre­tive wig­gle room.

But slight Haydn has its own pit­falls. The tex­ture is thin, mean­ing in­di­vid­ual in­stru­men­tal lines are ex­posed, and the orches­tra will be play­ing for the first time in the re­veal­ing Dis­ney Hall acous­tic. Bal­ances will need to be han­dled with ex­treme care, for which even the most ex­pe­ri­enced con­duc­tor re­quires de­cent re­hearsal time. (Prager can’t ex­pect much; Dis­ney rent is higher than even what spa­ces go for now in Santa Mon­ica.)

Haydn was a wit, and he put funny things in the sym­phony. These in­clude quirky syn­co­pa­tions in need of a nim­ble rhyth­mic touch to catch their sly hu­mor. If the sym­phony is known for any­thing, it is the two horn parts. In a star­tling Hayd­nesque flight of fancy, the first horn sails to the top of its range in a killer pas­sage at the start of the sec­ond move­ment; the sec­ond sinks to its low­est note right af­ter. If any­thing goes wrong — and any­thing can when it comes to this un­steady in­stru­ment — the con­duc­tor must have the ex­pert con­trol to not let that throw the per­for­mance.

Still, when an orches­tra wants to make a tyro on the podium look good, it can. Frank Zappa some­how pulled off con­duct­ing Varèse with the San Fran­cisco Con­tem­po­rary Mu­sic Play­ers. Gil­bert Ka­plan made a for­tune on Wall Street and then spent the rest of his life de­voted to con­duct­ing Mahler’s Sec­ond Sym­phony with many of the world’s great or­ches­tras. With a lit­tle coach­ing from Gus­tavo Du­damel and the cheer­ful good­will of the L.A. Phil, Gael Gar­cía Ber­nal led a win­ning per­for­mance of Mozart’s “Mar­riage of Fi­garo” Over­ture at the Hol­ly­wood Bowl for an episode of “Mozart in the Jun­gle.”

In this case, though, the Santa Mon­ica Sym­phony has been put in a ter­ri­ble predica­ment. The fundrais­ing na­ture of the con­cert is im­por­tant to the orches­tra, which means not puff­ing up Prager might be self-de­struc­tive. Plus, he is some­one who uses his pop­u­lar­ity to pro­mote clas­si­cal mu­sic. Prager’s mil­i­tant po­lar­iz­ing of is­sues (say, calling lib­er­al­ism a can­cer) en­sures that the au­di­ence will likely be siz­able and one-sided.

Ul­ti­mately, then, the orches­tra is be­ing asked to en­hance the stature of some­one whose promi­nence is based on es­pous­ing an ide­ol­ogy that dis­ap­proves of who many of the play­ers are and what they stand for. Let’s not for­get the ex­tra-mu­si­cal ad­van­tage that Prager, who ac­tively sells his brand with PragerU and books and his ra­dio show, has to gain.

How­ever the con­cert turns out, which will prob­a­bly be less than a dis­as­ter, Prager is in a po­si­tion to do as much harm as good for the orches­tra. He may have enough fundrais­ing mus­cle to make the con­cert a suc­cess, but in the process he taints the Santa Mon­ica Sym­phony with a seem­ing po­lit­i­cal bias once it re­turns home. What with the city’s cur­rent frenzy for de­vel­op­ment, it is no longer the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Santa Mon­ica. But it is hardly Prager coun­try. That is a high price to pay for a celebrity non-con­duc­tor.

Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

TWO VI­O­LIN­ISTS are calling for a boy­cott when Den­nis Prager guest con­ducts.

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