Unexamined Premises

Was Haydn a Bigot? Are You?

Dennis Prager (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Invision/AP)

My friend Dennis Prager, the radio talk-show-host, is conducting the Santa Monica Symphony in a Haydn symphony this Wednesday at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and, of course, his appearance has “drawn fire” and “raised controversy” in the fever swamps of the Left, which is freaking out at the prospect of having a “bigot” on the podium. Anyone who knows Dennis, or who even listens to his daily radio show on the Salem Radio Network, understands this is codswallop.  Prager is an observant Jew and a man who has spoken and written extensively on the moral issues of our day. His bona fides as a public intellectual are impeccable.

And yet…

It was supposed to be a dazzling opportunity for the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra — a volunteer ensemble of professional and semiprofessional musicians led by Guido Lamell — to play the prestigious Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for a fund-raiser. Mr. Lamell, music director of the orchestra, invited the conservative talk show host and columnist Dennis Prager as guest conductor for the event.

But that decision caused immediate outrage among some members of the symphony, and a number of them are refusing to play the fund-raiser, saying that allowing the orchestra to be conducted by Mr. Prager, who has suggested that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy and incest, among other contentious statements, would be tantamount to endorsing and normalizing bigotry. Some are even encouraging others not to attend the concert.

While Mr. Prager is not a trained conductor, he is a classical music aficionado, and has been a guest conductor for a number of orchestras in Southern California, including the Brentwood Westwood Symphony Orchestra. In 1994, he took to the stage at the Hollywood Bowl to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Nothing unusual about this. The late Gilbert Kaplan (another friend), who made his fortune in financial publishing, created a second career for himself by expertly conducting Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony all over the world, as well as funding Mahler research through his foundation.  Prager is an unabashed Haydn enthusiast who talks about his love for the composer’s music all the time, so it’s hardly surprising that a local community orchestra would reach out to him, both for the novelty of his appearance and as a fund-raiser. As the New York Times notes:

Donations to the symphony had declined this season, Mr. Lamell said. And he told members in an email in March that there was a “serious shortfall,” to underscore the necessity of the fund-raiser, explaining that Mr. Prager’s following could bring in sorely needed ticket sales. Mr. Prager, who has a deep love of classical music, would be leading the orchestra in a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 51.

But what’s fund-raising, the financial health of the orchestra and its future existence when it comes to ideological purity? The very fact that Prager, like all principled conservatives, holds opinions and, especially in his case, beliefs that differ from whichever transient attitudes the Left is touting today (remember when nobody even thought about gay marriage?  Remember when the word “white” wasn’t a term of opprobrium?) that now mark him as a “bigot.”

By that standard, of course, so were former President Obama and the once and future candidate Hillary Clinton just a few years ago. but the social-justice-warrior-driven pace of change picks up ever faster in the age of Twitter, and if you’re not up on the latest party orthodoxy, you run the risk of banishment to purdah. So the shock troops immediately snapped to attention to attack Prager. Here’s Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times:

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.

“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.”

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.

To which my response is: oh, grow up. The Berlin Philharmonic was led by Herbert von Karajan, who had literally been a card-carrying member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, to great renown.  The music of Communist and Soviet-collaborating composers, including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian, is regularly performed. A one-off concert with a single work being led by a man whose very public opinions you disagree with is not going to change anyone’s opinion about the Santa Monica Symphony, although this phony “controversy” might.

More important, this concert was never meant to be about politics, and wasn’t, until the aggrieved Left made it so.  Prager addressed some of the issues in a recent column:

For years, I have been conducting symphony orchestras in Southern California. I have conducted the Brentwood-Westwood, Glendale and West Los Angeles Symphony Orchestras, the Pasadena Lyric Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. I have studied classical music since high school, when I first began playing piano and studying orchestral scores.

I conduct orchestras because I love making music. But I also do so because I want to help raise funds for local orchestras (I have never been paid to conduct) and I want to expose as many people to classical music as possible.

After I conduct a symphony, I then conduct select parts of the piece in order to show the audience what various sections of the orchestra are doing. After that, I walk around the orchestra with a microphone and interview some of the musicians. Everyone seems to love it….

This is a new low for the illiberal left: It is not enough to prevent conservatives from speaking; it is now necessary to prevent conservatives from appearing even when not speaking. Conservatives should not even be allowed to make music.

(You can listen to Prager’s on-air interview with Andrew Apter here. And read his published response in full here.)

And that’s the point. Prager’s large following already knows where he stands on the big issues of the day. They likely know of his fondness for Haydn. What they may not know, however, is the wider world of classical music (a world in which I spent the first half of my professional life, and with which I continue to be involved), and the purpose of this concert is to introduce it to them. No sinister, coded, dog-whistled anti-gay message will be passed along in the opening vivace; no surreptitious Trump endorsements will be inserted into the extended lyrical horn solo of the slow movement; no Islamophobia into the minuet; and no homophobia will lurk within the rollicking allegro finale.

What the Left is trying to do here is to demonize and, if possible, shut down the event. It’s what they always try to do, especially latterly, when the Central Committee of the Social Justice Party, aka the Compromised Media™, has given them carte blanche to ignore their former dedication to free speech and indulge their inner socialist fascism to their hearts’ content. That their ham-fisted tactics are not only treated with equanimity, but actually endorsed by media outlets, is both a national disgrace and the new normal.

Musically, God help the horn players in the Santa Monica Symphony on Wednesday. Culturally, God spare us from politicized art. Morally, God help us all.