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 alt-right 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 question 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 half-century.
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,…