On August 16, author, pundit, and radio personality Dennis Prager — who also happens to be an amateur conductor — led the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 51 in B-flat major before a sold-out house, amidst the unique architecture and near-flawless acoustics of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Prager, a lifelong classical-music devotee, has, through his guest-conducting efforts, helped a number of orchestras raise operating funds and reach a wider audience. Knowing this, the SMSO approached Prager earlier this year to enlist his help, and he was keen to be of service. He had always wanted to perform the Haydn, but before agreeing to program the four-movement symphony, music director Guido Lamell needed to establish that Prager could actually conduct a work of this magnitude — no small matter.
While amateur guest conductors are not uncommon, it is quite out of the ordinary for one to take on the real responsibility of leading an orchestra through such an extended piece. In general, amateur guest conductors are magnanimous figureheads whose contributions are more important to the bottom line than the music. They tend to be celebrities, contest winners, and, more often than not, large donors. It’s always lots of fun for all involved; it’s just not real. To actually lead an orchestra, rather than pretend to, is a different thing altogether. Actual conducting requires not only years of study, but many hours of preparation, score analysis, and rehearsal.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 51 is an elegant and joyful creation. The up-tempo movements require dexterity and finesse from the conductor, with quick alternation between delicate and forceful gestures, while the slow movements necessitate a musical maturity comprising restraint, subtlety, experience, and control. Knowing this, Lamell spent several hours with Prager, going through the entire score before giving his enthusiastic, unequivocal blessing.
Prager has committed to these types of challenges before, raising funds for other orchestras by conducting a handful of Haydn symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s deceptively difficult “Capriccio Italien,” and compositions by Mozart and Handel. All the more striking is that as a conductor, he is entirely self-taught. He has been studying scores, watching conductors, and practicing with recordings since he was a teenager. Imitation can be one of the best ways to learn to conduct, but only when combined with time spent in front of live musicians. There are few opportunities to do so as an amateur.
When the concert was first announced, two members of the orchestra who objected to Prager’s political views circulated a petition calling for the concert to be boycotted by musicians and audience alike. Two major newspapers picked up the story and published articles that attributed to Prager things he’d never said. Subsequently, a national radio network piled on and gave a wider airing to the same unsubstantiated claims. Prager had never once politicized any of his concerts, but he was forced to respond when this became a national narrative. Indisputable proof of the facts came to light — in Prager’s published response, as well as in articles by others who came forward to stand up for the truth. As it stands, the original stories have been neither retracted nor corrected.
In our regrettably polarized society, it should be on these occasions when we can actually unite over our love of music. Friends of mine from all areas of the political spectrum were attending the concert, and I had friends playing in the orchestra that night. Never once did any of them feel the need to equate anything from this unique evening with arguments promoting disunity.
Truly intrigued, and with all these things in mind, I reserved a seat in Disney Hall’s “orchestra view” section — directly behind the orchestra — where one can enjoy an unobstructed, musician’s-eye view of the conductor.
Lamell introduced the concert and immediately established a convivial rapport with the full house by joking about the “cross-country” trek from Santa Monica to downtown LA. Acknowledging that many in the audience were attending their first classical-music concert because of Prager, he said, “I invited Dennis because for so many years he’s promoted classical music. My greatest hope is that you’ll come back, put classical music in your life.” Then, stepping to the podium, he began the evening’s opening number, Mozart’s delightful “Overture to the Marriage of Figaro.” The orchestra played beautifully under his leadership and the audience was charmed.
When Prager was invited to the stage, the audience greeted him with a standing ovation and he was clearly touched by the outpouring of affection. He then spoke affably and engagingly of his lifelong love of Haydn’s music. He quipped that Haydn’s 104 symphonies were “too many. He should have written only nine!” and went on to say that to him, orchestral music shows us how we can “sublimate our egos for something that is good.” This notion met with much applause.
When Prager stepped onto the podium, I watched his intense concentration with a bit of trepidation. As a fellow conductor, I felt a strong camaraderie and I was pulling for him, but I couldn’t know for sure how it would go. Would he be able to meet the challenge that lay before him? The answer came a few moments later, in the first few bars of Haydn’s music. Prager was confidently cueing every entrance, conveying every dynamic, and accentuating every countermelody. As his white hair flew about his head with each animated gesture, he was not merely beating time — he was leading with exuberant authenticity, and the orchestra followed with inspired vitality.
As his white hair flew about his head with each animated gesture, he was not merely beating time — he was leading with exuberant authenticity, and the orchestra followed with inspired vitality.
I saw in him the traits common to all good conductors: terrific eye contact, clear gestures, and a steady, controlled sense of rhythm. Conductors can’t be shy, and his self-assuredness was evident. I could see him smiling at the players; they were all having fun up there. He also never over-conducted. I found it refreshing that he would stop briefly when arm-waving was unnecessary — showing the musicians respect and trust, letting the music wash over him before indicating the next entrance. This is a trait found in only the most confident music directors.
Anyone who has heard Prager’s radio show knows that he is a wonderfully articulate communicator, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that someone with terrific verbal skills can communicate nonverbally with an orchestra. It takes heart, more than mind, to impart the emotions in the music while at the same time leading an ensemble through complicated musical passages. Prager has heart. His obvious enthusiasm about the music, his infectious joy, and his ability to show rather than tell is something to which every musician can respond.
Standing ovations have become ubiquitous and routine, with the consequence of rendering them often meaningless, but for this exceptional performance, we all leapt to our feet. Once the applause had died down, Prager interviewed a number of the evening’s musicians, asking them who, if any, had been forced by their parents to play an instrument or if they had begged for the opportunity (it was mostly the latter).
He then gave the audience a fascinating demonstration of how the various sections of the orchestra complement each other. Choosing an especially exuberant passage from the fourth movement of the Haydn, he asked the cellos and basses to play it once by themselves as he conducted and then beckoned the high strings to join them. Next, he had the winds play the passage alone, followed by everyone but the winds. Having highlighted the composer’s building blocks, he reiterated his admiration for Haydn’s genius and then reunited all the sections for one last rousing rendition. A professional conductor friend of mine later said to me that he was going to steal the idea, and he praised Prager’s confident leadership.
The intermission bore an agreeable feeling of contentment and informality. I noticed Prager chatting amiably with members of the audience in the first few rows of the hall, and those seated around me were engaged in lively conversation with their neighbors. The elderly Russian mother and her son to my left were avid Prager fans and eager to discuss what we had just seen. She proudly informed me she was headed to the Hollywood Bowl the very next night “to hear the LA Phil play Gershwin!”
As pleasurable as the concert had been to that point, the political controversy was not entirely forgotten. I was asked by the young couple to my right if the musicians who had left the stage after the Mozart and before the Haydn were protesting Prager. I assured them that was not the case: The Haydn merely called for a smaller group, and this “changing of the guard” happens in many concerts. They were glad to hear it.
After the bells rang in the lobby and the audience had retaken their seats, Lamell returned to the stage and, just in case anyone thought the real show was over, assured the crowd that Dennis Prager would be back. They then dove headfirst into the iconic four-note opening of what is arguably the world’s most well-known composition, Symphony No. 5 in C minor, by Ludwig van Beethoven. The orchestra soared through this extraordinary work of genius.
At the conclusion of the Beethoven, Lamell, as promised, asked Prager to return to the stage, but as he did so, he pulled out a violin bow and a saw (yes, the kind you buy at the hardware store). At the same time he encouraged Prager to strap on an accordion that was brought out for him. Lamell confessed that this was his last-minute idea and that Prager was good-natured about it. It turns out that accordion was Prager’s first instrument, and he lamented that prior to this he had not played one for 15 years. That didn’t keep the pair from launching into a folksy and endearing rendition of “America the Beautiful,” the accordion’s wheezy chords filling the hall and the saw whistling like a theremin.
The second time around, the orchestra joined in and the audience was encouraged to sing along. As we sang the familiar lyrics, what had been a light-hearted mood turned poignant, and many found themselves wiping away tears. Few could miss the irony that a music event some felt was so divisive it must be boycotted had the audience singing “and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” This was followed by another extended and heartfelt standing ovation, all of us sporting ear-to-ear grins.
— Jonathan Merrill is a conductor, composer, and music producer in Los Angeles. He teaches orchestral conducting to film composers.