In the heated and polarized political climate we live in, what began as a modest protest via open letter by four local musicians has become something of a “cause célèbre” for conservative cultural critics.
On August 1, an Op-Ed by radio talk show host Dennis Prager written for Townhall.com—which defines itself as the leading conservative and political opinion website—asks, “Can a Conservative Conduct an Orchestra?”
The piece has since been reproduced in the widely-read National Review and influential RedState.com and is being picked up by other conservative commentators, repeating Prager’s contention that “the illiberal left” is trying to “boycott” him. The comments fields of these sites are exploding with rage and vitriol.
Prager was invited to be a guest conductor at the first-ever, paid-ticket fundraiser for Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra on August 16 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Renowned for his love of classical music, he has guest conducted the Glendale Symphony and even the L.A. Philharmonic. Like most of the orchestra’s volunteer musicians, Prager offered his services for free.
But a small group of players—who knew nothing about Prager and were stunned once they discovered his views—objected to the invitation and penned an open letter encouraging musicians and audience members to consider Prager’s “bigoted ideas” when deciding whether to perform or attend the concert. Find the open letter here: https://sites.google.com/view/donotattendpragerconcert/.
Now fiery headlines like “UCLA Profs Try to Stop Prager from Conducting Symphony” and “The Dictatorial Left” are rising to the top of Google searches about the concert.
IS IT REALLY A BOYCOTT?
Prager contends that the musicians are trying to “disinvite” and “boycott” him because of his conservative views.
But speaking for the four musicians who are sitting out the concert (70 others will be performing), violinist and UCLA Political Science Professor Michael Chwe responded: “None of us have ever called for Prager to be disinvited from guest conducting. None of us have ever called for …the concert to be cancelled…We would be happy to work with a musically excellent conductor who has conservative political views. We object to Prager’s participation because he widely broadcasts bigoted views.”
Their open letter cites Prager’s anti-homosexual and anti-Muslim remarks. Violinist (and UCLA History Professor) Andrew Apter writes: “This is not a partisan issue, but one about decency and respect for diversity and tolerance. In the Santa Monica Symphony, to subject ourselves to the command of his baton is an implicit, if not explicit, endorsement of his bigoted ideas as a public figure.”
COUNCIL MEMBERS WEIGH IN
Mayor Ted Winterer says he doesn’t plan to attend the concert and is not encouraging others to go.
Councilman Kevin McKeown, a musician himself, was quoted in Prager’s Op-Ed, “I personally will most certainly not be attending a concert featuring a bigoted hate monger. The judgement (or lack of) shown in inviting Prager may affect future community support for the Symphony (whose concerts I have attended in the past).” Now McKeown is receiving hate mail.
Both McKeown and Council Member Gleam Davis agree with City Manager Rick Cole and the City Attorney’s position that with First Amendment protections, the city can take no action in connection with artistic choices made by the orchestra. But, she says, Prager’s political and other statements “are not representative of my or our city’s progressive, inclusive values. While we cannot and should not silence those with whom we disagree, we certainly can refuse to support them.”
Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra has been providing free community concerts for 45 years but bumped up against a funding shortfall this year. Their budget is quite small, in the $150,000 range, and the City of Santa Monica provides less than 10% of its funding.
Given Prager’s large national radio audience, the orchestra’s Board of Directors (one of whom went on a trip to Israel led by Prager a few years ago and was impressed by him) saw an opportunity to tap into his local popularity to generate ticket sales and raise awareness of the orchestra. Targeted ad purchases for the concert are focusing on media that reach Prager’s audience, and Prager himself is talking about it on his radio show.
Santa Monica Symphony’s much-loved and highly-respected orchestra leader Guido Lamell is so convinced Prager’s presence will bring in urgently needed funding that he is personally guaranteeing the high costs of booking Disney Hall.
Some of the protesting musicians believe that in the long run, this decision will hurt the orchestra’s reputation. But while others are conflicted, most of the participating musicians say that love of music and their orchestra matter more than politics, and they’re excited to play Disney Hall, which Prager also considers an honor.
Freelance guest cellist Andrea Comsky, who is not a member of SMS, says she jumped at the chance to play with the orchestra because she and her husband Jack Cousin—L.A. Philharmonic’s double bass player since 1974 and an SMS regular—will finally perform together professionally for the first time since they met in an orchestra more than 16 years ago. Disney Hall is the icing on the cake for her and she’s sorry there’s been controversy.
“If someone decides not to come,” Comsky said, “that’s up to them. But I would never ask musicians or conductors about their political viewpoints. If I did, I might never go to anything. The concert and music are separate issues to me; Prager is not giving a political speech, he’s coming in to conduct.”
But Michael Chwe says the decision to hand the baton to Prager will have lasting consequences for him: he’s leaving the orchestra. “The decision … has caused me to lose faith in the artistic and moral integrity of Guido Lamell and the SMS leadership. I don’t think I could play with the SMS again with an open heart.”