IN UNISON Chorus performing at St. Louis' Powell Hall.
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Symphony.
Jesse Rosen, President & CEO, League of American Orchestras
October 22, 2014
On Monday night, demonstrators protested the Metropolitan Opera for performing John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer." Three weeks ago a very different kind of demonstration was held in Powell Symphony Hall. Just before the start of a performance by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Brahms German Requiem, demonstrators unfurled banners reading "Requiem for Michael Brown" and "Racism Lives Here" above a drawing of the iconic Saint Louis Arch. Next the protesters sang several choruses of "Which Side Are You On," a 1930s protest song dating back to the bitter miners' strike in Harlan County, KY. It was all over in three minutes. The demonstrators departed peacefully, on their own volition, chanting "Black Lives Matter," and the scheduled performance proceeded.
What happened in those three minutes and what does it mean that it occurred in Powell Symphony Hall? Anyone who watched the video or heard the radio broadcast can see for themselves the confusion, fear, support, and anger the demonstrators inspired in the audience and on the stage. A full range of views and feelings is on display. The explosive and divisive issue of race with all its messiness, emotion, and frustration, had entered the concert hall. Whether orchestras are seeking a place in the country's continuing conversation about race, or that conversation descends on them, race is an inescapable fact of life for orchestras as it is in the rest of America. Orchestras have a long way to go to achieve racial diversity in the board room, onstage, and in the audience. But they are not standing still.
The Brahms Requiem is one of the most sublime expressions of loss, healing, and redemption. The demonstration organizers report that they carefully chose the occasion of its performance as the time and place to engage -- a testament to this canonic work's relevance and enduring capacity to take on new meaning as the context around it changes. Admittedly, the St. Louis Symphony did not choose this new context; it chose them. But the choice of time and place was an affirmation that the St. Louis Symphony and the Brahms Requiem matter, especially, as this simmering city confronts the most urgent issues triggered by the Michael Brown shooting.
This was not the St. Louis Symphony's first connection to Ferguson. Last month the orchestra participated in a concert in a Ferguson church in support of the community. The concert, billed as "Heal Ferguson," was organized by Brian Owens, St. Louis Symphony staff member and a Ferguson resident.