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Santa Monica Symphony Roiled by Conservative Guest Conductor

Mr. Prager said in an email, “To the extent that the event has been rendered political, it was done solely by the people who chose to make it political — by publicly urging orchestra members not to play that night and urging people not to attend.”

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.”

“I fell in love with classical music at first hearing as a sophomore in high school,” said Mr. Prager, a native of Brooklyn who lives in the Los Angeles area. “Carnegie Hall offered one-dollar tickets to students and, as I wanted to be exposed to everything (except schoolwork), I went. The next day, I went back to Manhattan and spent a month’s worth of lunch money on concert tickets.”

His political views are divisive. Just last month, Mr. Prager posted on Twitter that “the news media in the West pose a far greater danger to Western civilization than Russia does.” In 2014, he wrote that the “heterosexual AIDS” crisis was something “entirely manufactured by the Left.” That same year, Mr. Prager suggested that if same-sex marriage were legalized, then “there is no plausible argument for denying polygamous relationships, or brothers and sisters, or parents and adult children, the right to marry.”

These are some of the opinions that have caused deep consternation among the Santa Monica Symphony musicians.

“Dennis Prager is a right-wing radio host who promotes horribly bigoted positions,” read an open letter circulated among the musicians the day after Mr. Lamell’s email. The letter, written by Andrew Apter and Michael Chwe, two University of California, Los Angeles, professors who are violinists in the orchestra, went on: “Prager is not a trained conductor and there is no musical rationale for his participation. Please urge your friends to not attend this concert, which helps normalize bigotry in our community.”

Two other musicians signed on to the letter after it was posted online in mid-July. Some musicians made their decision separately from the open letter.

Zach Zyskowski, 29, a freelance TV producer who has been a violinist for the orchestra for five years, said, “Being a gay person who has been discriminated against, I don’t want to perform with somebody who has written some pretty awful things about gay people, women and minorities.”


Guido Lamell conducting the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra.

Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra

He added that he found it impossible to separate Mr. Prager’s politics from the man, and that he knew of about five other musicians who were declining to play.

This is a key point of contention for Mr. Prager, who said that this night was strictly about music, not politics.

“I have never used a conducting appearance to make a political point,” Mr. Prager said. “In fact, I was particularly pleased to help the orchestra of one of the most liberal cities in America to make the point that great music should transcend political differences.”

Santa Monica, like much of California, is overwhelmingly liberal. Last November, 80 percent of the city voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald J. Trump in the presidential election. Local officials have weighed in on the concert with Mr. Prager — a performance that would otherwise be a blip on the radar. The mayor of Santa Monica, Ted Winterer, has said that he would not be attending the event but added in an email, “It’s not the role of government and its officials to endorse or demean artistic performances.”

Another official, Councilman Kevin McKeown, told The Santa Monica Daily Press: “I personally will most certainly not be attending a concert featuring a bigoted hate monger. The judgment (or lack of) shown in inviting Prager may affect future community support for the Symphony (whose concerts I have attended in the past).”

The conflict came to a head on Monday when Mr. Apter appeared on Mr. Prager’s show to discuss why he was refusing to perform in a concert conducted by Mr. Prager, as well as what he found so objectionable about Mr. Prager’s political views. Mr. Apter cited Mr. Prager’s rhetoric toward gays and his criticism of Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota being sworn in on a Quran, among other examples. Mr. Prager objected to being described as a bigot.

“What you folks on the left have done is taken these terms and you have disemboweled them,” Mr. Prager said on his show. “You have removed all seriousness of them. You use the terms of the bigoted, racist and hateful so regularly, it doesn’t mean a thing to most Americans.”

Mr. Apter responded, “The same exact argument could be made from my direction toward your community.”

Mr. Lamell, for his part, and the orchestra’s board of directors, are standing staunchly behind the invitation to Mr. Prager to conduct. The performance is to continue as scheduled on Aug. 16 and Mr. Lamell expects more than 70 musicians to show up, right around the average number, but he acknowledged that he had never before had members of the ensemble dropping out because of politics.

“I anticipated it,” Mr. Lamell said. “I think it’s perfectly reasonable. It’s perfectly fair. No one is ever forced in the symphony. It’s always voluntary. I expected it to happen. All I can say is that, ‘Yes, some people cannot separate their political views from their musical views.’”

“For me, it was a nonissue,” he said, referring to Mr. Prager. “I was responding to his musical experience.”

As far as ticket sales, Mr. Lamell said that more than half of the available tickets had already been sold and that he was “thrilled” with what he called an “enthusiastic response,” perhaps aided by coverage of the controversy from conservative sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller.

Mr. Prager is certainly gracious toward Mr. Lamell and the board for standing by him — and he said as much with the slight hint of a shot at his critics.

“They are true liberals,” Mr. Prager said. “Liberals, by definition, are open-minded. And they really care about helping their orchestra.”

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