Exclusive: What it’s like to be conducted by Dennis Prager

Exclusive: What it’s like to be conducted by Dennis Prager


norman lebrecht

August 17, 2017

Lawrence Wheeler, a professional musician, volunteered to play principal viola for the controversial Santa Monica concert conducted by the rightwing radio host, Dennis Prager. Here are his impressions, exclusive to Slipped Disc:


This week, I have been rehearsing and performing as principal viola with the Santa Monica Symphony for their fundraiser concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. I offered to do so in support of my friend Guido Lamell, music director and conductor of the orchestra. This decision was not intended to show support for the controversial guest conductor, Dennis Prager. While I am left of center politically, I believe in any person’s right to hold and express opinions, and I feel the liberal and conservative labels don’t allow for critical thinking on individual issues. In any case, I intend to give an objective account, free of political bias or agenda.

Guido Lamell is a violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is an excellent musician and an enthusiastic supporter of classical music. He assumed leadership of the SMS five years ago, following a split with the former conductor. Guido began with only eight musicians, and within a month he had recruited 60 musicians for a performance of Scheherazade. Then, as now, the SMS is a community orchestra comprised of amateurs, advanced students, and some paid professionals. While there is a core of 40 regulars, each concert requires filling in as needed.

The idea to ask Dennis Prager to conduct a piece on the annual fundraiser came from a member of the board a year and a half ago. Prager had previously conducted five orchestras and was a fan of classical music, particularly the works of Joseph Haydn. Lamell met with Prager to discuss possible repertoire, agreeing on a Haydn symphony. Lamell then polled the orchestra regarding their thoughts and feelings about having Prager conduct. At that time, no one objected. The logistics didn’t work out, so the idea was tabled for a year. When the orchestra was polled again, seven members said they would not perform if Prager conducted. In the final week before the concert, an additional three declined to participate. Lamell was able to fill all spots as needed.

In the weeks before the concert, Lamell worked with Prager on his conducting technique, and there were meetings with small groups of musicians. During the full orchestra rehearsals, Lamell offered suggestions and corrections to Prager. For his part, Prager was uniformly polite and respectful to the musicians. There were occasional conducting missteps, to be sure, but Prager worked very hard not to repeat them. He often thanked us for helping him realize his life-long dream to conduct a Haydn symphony.

The dress rehearsal had gone very well, and we were excited to play in the fantastic acoustics of Disney Concert Hall, which some consider the best in the world. By concert time, all 2,254 seats were sold. Lamell was greeted with enthusiastic applause before leading a spirited Marriage of Figaro Overture. The partisan audience gave a standing ovation to Prager, who then spoke about his lifelong love of music. The orchestra assisted Prager in presenting an energetic performance, highlighted by fine playing of a demanding French horn part. Following the complete symphony, Prager deconstructed a part of the last movement, which demonstrated to the audience how Haydn put the instrumental pieces together. He then took a microphone in hand and asked several musicians why they began studying music. These elements added educational and personal components to the concert.

Following intermission, Lamell led Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in as enthusiastic a performance as one is likely to hear. Minor technical imperfections hardly mattered, and the audience responded to the energy and passion on stage. For an encore, Prager returned with an accordion, and Lamell traded his baton for a bow and saw to perform “America the Beautiful.” The orchestra and audience joined in after the first stanza. This touch of kitsch was enjoyable, nevertheless.

Along with its supporters, this concert was not without its detractors and sincere objectors. Whatever one’s viewpoint, there is no disputing that it was a huge success as a fundraiser. This marked the first time a community orchestra has sold out Disney Concert Hall, and during the summer, as well.


  • Scott Colebank says:

    Which Haydn symphony was played?

  • Attendee says:

    If Gilbert Kaplan conducted Mahler like a drum major, then tonight’s guest conductor flailed about like an inflatable used-car lot dancing man, indifferent to Haydn’s music emanating in front of him. I was there. The Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra should be commended for being able to play under the present leadership for that evening. The Haydn Symphony No. 51 was not an easy piece, and hats off to the brass section for nailing their difficult solos without any assistance from the podium.

    The guest conductor had a home-team advantage because 90% of the audience were his acolytes; some of them wore name badges with affiliations of the guest conductor’s self-branded online university on YouTube. The audience was very lively and would applaud when the music was at a low volume before it ended, like the transition between the 3rd and 4th movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

    Given that his metier is on conservative talk radio and punditry, his musical education and sensitivity were not commensurate with the passion of his political views at all. His beat was simply a reaction to the musicians, and in no meaningful way did he attempt to guide them in an interpretation. During the finale of the Haydn symphony, the cellist turning pages in the first desk dropped their music. Since they were using photocopies that weren’t fastened at all, and though the movement raced by, an executive decision was made: the principal cello and his stand partner stopped playing. The guest conductor did not know.

    The guest conductor argued that he conducts because he wants to bring classical music to the people. I would’ve accepted his wager, but throughout the evening, it seemed that most of the evening was devoted to talking: The guest conductor and principal conductor talked about themselves primarily and at times, each other, and during one segment after the Haydn symphony, the guest conductor singled out orchestra members and asked them questions about when did they choose their instrument and why, and did their parents force them to practice? It was slightly alarming to me because the guest conductor’s ability to walk among the sections of the orchestra was precarious with the risers, music stands, and instruments. When he walked through the second violin section and the high woodwind row to the bassoons, the principal bassoonist clutched his instrument.

    The orchestra played the Beethoven symphony very well, but balance issues hid the valiant playing of the viola and woodwind sections. The runs were expertly played, but often obscured by the other sections of the orchestra. These are issues that professional conductors can fix in rehearsal or even in concert.

    At the end of the concert, there was a Lawrence Welk-like performance of “America the Beautiful” for accordion, musical saw, and orchestra. The principal violist for the evening conducted, and he gave the clearest beat out of the two other conductors that evening. During the standing ovation from his followers, I left quickly because I could not stomach more self-congratulations and the possibility for a second encore.

    As a member of the “illiberal left” as he would describe me, I nor anyone else that evening in the audience prevented him from conducting. When I returned home, I decided to look at the guest conductor’s work on YouTube and I re-read his op-ed columns in The National Review. There was a petition to dis-invite him because of his brand of conservativism includes homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, etc. My memory of the concert soured, and it’s not just because I didn’t know who was conducting beforehand. I was aware of the guest conductor’s reputation, and after the evening, the music director’s political views as well. But one of the beautiful parts of music making is that for the duration of the piece, the composer’s voice was louder than the punditry. When the music stops, however, the reality of Trump’s America and all of the guest conductor’s self-branded projects returns. All roads pointed to him and not Beethoven, Mozart, or Haydn.

    The parallel was clear to me: A man with no meaningful musical education or experience telling a group of well meaning people what to do and then being congratulated for his efforts by his followers. Toscanini said about Richard Strauss, “To Richard Strauss, the composer, I take off my hat. To Richard Strauss, the man, I put it on again.” I take my hat off to the orchestra members of the Santa Monica Symphony; to the leadership, I put my hat on and go home.

    • Steve P says:

      Rectal agony at its finest. Bravo, sir. I tip my MAGE hat and raise my COVFEFE cup to you.

    • Steve P says:

      Rectal agony at its finest. Bravo, sir. I tip my MAGA hat and raise my COVFEFE cup to you.

    • Steve P says:

      Or maybe I’ll tip both – I am a Trump-voting wizard.

    • Barbara says:

      I believe the comment was , ‘ To Richard Strauss the composer I take off my hat. To Richad Strauss the man, I put it on twice.’

      By the way, comparing Prager to Strauss as a musican, I suspect Prager would vote for Strauss. But I’ll take Prager the man any day and, you know what, I’ll bet you’ve never listened to his show.

    • Barbara says:

      The quote is, “To Richard Strauss the composer I take off my hat, to Richard Strauss the man I put it on twice.”

      And I suspect you’ve never listened to even an hour of Prager.

    • Larry W says:

      The major reason I wrote an account of this concert was to correct factual errors and counter the misinformation directed at the Santa Monica Symphony musicians and its music director, Guido Lamell. I greatly appreciate the opportunity given by Norman Lebrecht to do so.

      I cannot stay silent and allow an anonymous poster to highjack what I wrote in good faith and rewrite the history of the event. “Attendee,” you are wrong on so many counts that I must question your honesty, let alone your objectivity.

      The only conductor you identified by name was Gilbert Kaplan, and that was to deliver an insult. A similar insult was posted by “Frederick West” on August 11. If that is not you, then who are you? Your anonymous post is cowardly. You did not mention Guido Lamell or Dennis Prager by name. You also did not write about the famous Mozart overture that began the concert. Perhaps you didn’t recognize it. Did you not have a program?

      The audience had 100-200 who had never been to a classical music concert before. Outreach was an important part of the concert’s objective. Apparently, you felt superior when some clapped at the “wrong” time. Hardly a sign of inclusiveness.

      Having only seen Dennis Prager from the back, you have no way of judging his “musical education and sensitivity.” For any conductor, most of the work is done in rehearsal, and Prager provided his interpretation and concept there. His beat was not “simply a reaction to the musicians” since he gave several preparatory beats to set tempos.

      The first-stand cellos had to stop playing after a music mishap. There was no “executive decision”– they simply couldn’t continue playing an unfamiliar piece from memory. Prager knew full well they had stopped playing. I saw him glance at them. When the piece was finished, he smiled at them and shook the principal cellists’ hand, indicating all was well.

      It’s absurd for you to say “most of the evening was devoted to talking,” or, “The guest conductor and principal conductor talked about themselves primarily and at times, each other…”(your run-on sentence continued). Lamell began the concert by polling the audience. The overwhelming majority were there because of Prager. It is customary to compliment an invited guest/conductor, especially when every ticket was sold. Saying Prager was his friend declared nothing about Lamell’s political views. And my saying Guido is my friend declares nothing about mine. All of us have music in common. Stop using it to divide.

      Orchestral musicians walk among risers, music stands, and instruments all the time. While one needs to be careful, it is not “precarious.” The bassoonist clutching his instrument is a common comic routine when a conductor gets close. Even with the audience’s laughter, you didn’t get the joke. Now, that’s alarming to me.

      I am not sure you are able to judge balance issues (or for that matter, balance issues). I have heard the recording of the concert and hear excellent balance within the orchestra. The violas were more than “valiant,” we were damn good. I can fully agree “the runs were expertly played.” As for my brief conducting, it consisted of 16 measures in four. Nothing could be simpler. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is one of the most difficult things for any conductor. Since it was well together, the beat must have been clear.

      There was no petition to dis-invite Prager. A few wrote why they were not participating and urged others to reconsider their involvement. That effort had limited traction.

      Clearly, you are not qualified to give either compliments or criticisms, or to accurately report events. I suggest you simply take your hat in hand and go home. Quickly and quietly.

      • Frederick West says:

        My comment,
        ‘He’s a non musician standing before an orchestra of professionals’ – reminds me of someone else…..ah yes, Gilbert Kaplan.”

        Lawrence, may I reassure you that this was not meant as a negative comment or insult against Gilbert Kaplan, more a response towards the original topic posted by NL, perhaps a rather unsubtle point in retrospect.
        I think something was ‘lost in translation’ here, but I have no axe to grind in your comment.

        For what it’s worth I saw no objection towards the concert whatsoever, or the fact that Prager was conducting. I’m most pleased it all went well and was a success. These things should transcend petty politics and the silly spats that always result. If it’s any consolation I was most definitely on your side.

      • Mary Nabours says:

        As a violist in the SMS I would like to express our sincere appreciation on behalf of our section. Not only were your indications crystal clear (frankly in order to maintain acceptable ensemble during the Haydn most of us relied on you and the concertmaster, who is also, like you, a great guy and a beautiful player), but your human, interpersonal vibe was warm and colleagial, even when corrections were required in rehearsals.

        It was very kind of you to compliment our section (calling us “damn good”!!). Because of your and Guido’s support and encouragement we felt really motivated to muster our best efforts. We were lucky to have you join us, and we are all very grateful for your generosity, leadership and fine musicianship. Thank you.

  • Stephen Limbaugh says:

    I attended the concert last night. I’ve met Dennis and I’m also an acquaintance of one of the violinists in the SMS who boycotted the performance. This is an accurate account and I applaud Mr. Wheeler’s objectivity. Mr. Wheeler is leaving out that he himself conducted the orchestra for the “America the Beautiful” and did a fine job. I also enjoyed his joke during the interview section, (and I’m paraphrasing) that “violinists, if they keep practicing, could one day become violists.”

    If I may also point out one other success from the concert: when asked who was attending their first classical music concert, 100-200 of the audience responded in the affirmative.

  • Holly Golightly says:

    You’d think Prager was a creature from another planet by the tone of this and other reports. For many millions of people he’s a man who believes in personal responsibility and who eschews political correctness and who doesn’t tolerate airbrushing the truth with obfuscation, bleeding, crying and emoting – the schtick of the Left.

    Keep doing that thing you do, Dennis Prager.

  • Steve P says:

    Love that it was sold out. Gotta piss off the butthurt music antifa crowd…I mean, if they were politically motivated to boycott, which OF COURSE they weren’t.

    • William Safford says:

      Have you yet repented for your support of bigotry and neo-Nazis?

      Didn’t think so.

    • LA resident says:

      “butthurt music antifa crowd”

      What does this even mean? There is a music antifa crowd?

      • Steve P says:

        Sure there is: pretty much every performing artist in the US is sitting on “go” to protest something on the right. My fingers would bleed if I tried to copy and paste all the links to articles about artists with lib sensitivities.

      • William Safford says:

        It apparently means that there are people in this country who support American fascism. They are opposed to people who call out fascism.

        Who knew that fascism would be supported in this country? Well, a minority of voters did elect Trump….

        • Steve P says:

          But the voting process – thank GAWD – in presidential elections does not allow election by mob rule. Most of the COUNTRY, however – states and counties where people actually live, not just crowd together and make each other crazy – voted for President Trump.

          • NYMike says:

            Most of the sparsely populated COUNTRY voted for the orange buffoon thanks to gerrymandering. Urban areas supplied Clinton with a nearly 3-million vote plurality unfortunately countermanded by the “Electoral College.” Stop spewing “alternate facts.”

    • jaypee says:

      “Gotta piss off the butthurt music antifa crowd”

      Enjoy it while it lasts, brain-dead trumpanzee, the payback may be sooner than you think.

      “I love the poorly educated”.
      – the orange cretin in a rare moment of lucidity while he talked about his followers

      • Steve P says:

        Payback will be re-election in 2020. Keep that tissue box handy, peepee.

        • Max Grimm says:

          That’s assuming of course that by then, the American people won’t be too busy being at each other’s throats, exchanging paybacks, to make it to the polls.

        • NYMike says:

          Chances are that the orange buffoon won’t be around in 2020 for the “re-election.”

        • jaypee says:

          “Payback will be re-election in 2020.Keep that tissue box handy,”

          Poor Steve Peepee (see, i can play that dumb game as well), just as delusional as his fellow trumpanzees.

          Grabbed any women by the XXX today, Steve Peepee?
          Made fun of a handicapped person?
          What’s keeping you? Isn’t that what your orange hero is advocating?

          • Steve P says:

            My orange hero referenced gold diggers making themselves available for all kinds of bad things, p*ssy grabbing being on the lower end. So far, I have restrained myself and succumbed to behavior of that sort only with my beautiful wife.
            As for the second question, that was debunked a while back; however, PeeJay, lies never stopped a lib from making up whatever narrative suits their current offensensitivity.

  • William Safford says:

    The wisdom of the choice to bring in this polemicist as conductor, should be judged based at least in part on what the aims and goals were, and how well the results of this event fulfilled them.

    We already know that artistic excellence was not one of the primary goals. To be fair, that would be true with any non-musician guest conductor for any fundraiser.

    If a goal was merely to fill seats in the auditorium, then it was a success.

    If a goal was to sell those tickets, and thereby fill coffers, then I gather it was a success.

    If a goal was to generate press coverage, then it was a success.

    If a goal was to achieve notoriety, then it was a success.

    If a goal was to bring right-wing activists and their sympathizers into a concert hall, then it was a success.

    If a goal was to draw attention to the homophobic, misogynistic, islamophobic guest conductor, then it was a success.

    The greater picture: was it worth it? I leave it to the orchestra members to make that decision for themselves. But in my mind, the Santa Monica Symphony is now associated with the homophobia, misogyny, and islamophobia of its guest conductor. If that was a goal, then it was a success.

    • Larry W says:

      Who the hell cares what’s in your mind?

    • Barry says:

      I’m sure that’s not the only crazy thing floating around in that obviously small and demented space.

      • William Safford says:

        Yeah, many of his supporters — most of the audience? — were in the hall. It must have been a demented space indeed.

        • Larry W says:

          Only if you were there, Bill. Lol.

          • William Safford says:

            Nope. I am not a demented right wing supporter of the bigotry and ugliness represented by people such as Prager, Trump, and the white supremacists who demonstrated in Charlottesville.

            I decry such bigotry, racism, islamophobia, anti-Semitism (as chanted in Charlottesville), homophobia, and MURDER.

            Conservatives such as William F. Buckley banished these people and groups to the fringes, because he knew the damage that they would do to a principled conservative cause. Buckley is dead. They have reemerged. They are a stain on conservatism and on our country.

            The current Republican Party has courted them, as part of the Southern Strategy. They, in turn, have corrupted the Republican Party, with the tacit approval of many therein.

            Trump is, wittingly or unwittingly, their tool and supporter. He courts them as part of his political base.

            This is an ugly time in our country. It is time to renounce bigotry and hatred, and remove those in office who support white supremacy, whether through the ballot box or through other Constitutional means.

          • Steve P says:

            You should write a pamphlet, Willie. I have the title: “Ich nenne dich einen bigot.”

    • Barbara says:

      Please give evidence that Prager is a bigot towards gays, women, Muslims. Thank you.

    • M2N2K says:

      You have correctly described the first five goals and their complete success achieved by that concert. The sixth is a false premise because, judging by his public pronouncements, Dennis Prager does not fit any of those labels you have put on him. Not seeing or ignoring the difference between an outspoken contemporary conservative and violent neo-nazis is ignorant at best.

      • William Safford says:

        To the contrary, Prager fits them very well (except for anti-Semitism).

        Just read his writings. With the one aforementioned exception, it’s all there. It may not be as virulent. It may not be as violent. It may take different forms. But it’s there.

        • Jeremy says:

          Billy boy, I cannot express in words the joy I get in reading your comments. The pain you are in because Trump was elected POTUS, his cabinet, his tweets, even Prager, are eating you alive. And you still have more than 3 years to go! I’ll bet an ulcer for sure, maybe a heart attack, constant angst, diarrhea and maybe a few trips to the insane asylum await you. Looking forward to more comments from you Billy boy. You made my day

        • Steve P says:

          If you look hard enough, you may also find Templar references. Heck, I hear tell that Prager has visions like that Nostradamus fella…just got know how to look closely enough.

        • M2N2K says:

          Have read many of his articles. There is no “hate” in them, except perhaps his strong dislike of narrow-minded leftists and his even stronger dislike – “hate” would probably be an appropriate term – for what he considers evil.

  • Frederick West says:

    I mistakenly hit the ‘notify me’ box, hopefully this will uncheck it.

  • Larry W says:

    @William Safford: While I really don’t want to be placed in the position of defending Prager, some accuracy is in order here. I believe it is a falsehood to lump Prager in with the white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville. He is a religious Jew, and as you say, they were chanting against Jews. We can agree, however, that our country needs a change of leadership, starting at the top.

    • Steve P says:

      Watch out! You’re gonna get the “b” word slung in your direction by Willie!

    • William Safford says:

      We do agree on the need for a change of leadership in the White House.

      As for Prager and his culpability in all of this, I recommend reading some of the commentary about Trump, the alt-right, and others.

      For example, last year, Mitt Romney said:

      ““I don’t want to see trickle-down racism,” Mr. Romney said on CNN in June 2016. “I don’t want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation. And trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny — all of these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America.””

      The same is true for pundits.

      As Charles Blow recently wrote:

      “People think that they avoid the appellation because they do not openly hate. But hate is not a requirement of white supremacy. Just because one abhors violence and cruelty doesn’t mean that one truly believes that all people are equal — culturally, intellectually, creatively, morally. Entertaining the notion of imbalance — that white people are inherently better than others in any way — is also white supremacy.”

      People like Prager may not be as evil as the white supremacists who marched and murdered in Charlottesville. However, he gives them a framework for their bigoted beliefs. He gives these ideas legitimacy. He gives them intellectual cover.

      N.B. Prager may be bigoted in other areas, but, to the best of my knowledge, he is not an anti-Semite. I was careful how I phrased my previous message. Thank you for picking up on that.

      • Larry W says:

        You quote Mitt Romney and Charles Blow, yet neither mention Prager. You say what you think about Prager, yet do not quote him directly but refer me to alt-right commentary. You have called many on here bigoted without knowing them personally, and do so with an air of moral superiority. Who are you to judge anyone?

        I offered to play in Santa Monica because they were attacked for their right to decide to have Prager conduct a fundraiser. I was attacked for defending that right of self determination. I would fight for your right to express your beliefs too, but I see no one trying to stop you from doing so. By lumping Prager in with the thugs in Charleston, you were being neither fair nor truthful. Your subsequent backpedaling and parsing reveals a lack of integrity, and I have no patience for that. I am done dealing with you.

  • Thea Brescia says:

    Thank you, Lawrence Wheeler for your very fine article! Highly informative and a delight to read about an inside view from a musician’s perspective. Happy to hear that the event went so well.