Last Saturday evening, October 4, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and chorus had taken the stage for the 2nd half of the concert, tuned and Markus Stenz, the guest conductor for the concert and soloists had entered, ready to perform the incredible “Requiem” by Johannes Brahms. Just as the conductor began to step onto the podium, chanting broke out in the form of singing, and banners calling for justice for Mike Brown and the recognition of issues of systematic racism were unfurled. Leaflets were dropped – “A Requiem for Mike Brown.” This continued for a little while. Eventually the protestors left the hall and the concert continued and the Brahms was performed.
It has been interesting, and also discouraging, to read the various accounts of this event – from both sides. First though, let me say that I am supportive of the protestors. I support their call for justice, and their passion for calling attention to institutionalized racism that is so incredibly pervasive that it sometimes boggles the mind. The militarization of the police is also very troubling. And when you add those two things together you have a lethal mix. Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and so many others are victims of this mix of racism and resorting to violence as an initial response. How many children need to be killed before we take a serious look at the issues of racism and pervasive violence in our society? Violence begets violence – and violence solves nothing it just makes everything worse. This protest drew attention to these things in a way that was appropriate.
Even so, I have to say I think the protest ended too quickly and in the process a wonderful opportunity was missed. It is disappointing that the protestors left the hall after the protest. How much better it would have been if they had simply sat down and experienced the Brahms in honor and in memory of Mike Brown and all of the others who have been victims of racism. The protest gave us faces for this requiem. How disappointing than they didn’t see it through. The incredible music and beautiful biblical text of this work is such a profound statement of healing and love. What more appropriate piece is there?
Brahms composed the work between 1865 and 1868 in response to loosing people in his life who were very dear to him. He purposefully chose not to use the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass (set in Requiems by Mozart and Verdi). Instead he chose a series of Scripture texts that he felt reflected his own feelings and that he found comforting and profound. He set these texts – in German – in hopes that others would find this work both approachable and comforting. I have always found this work to be a very powerful and moving experience. Indeed, Brahms himself is quoted as wanting to change the title from “A German Requiem” to “A Human Requiem.”
There is another reason I found their leaving before the performance a disappointment that has been reinforced by some of the published commentary on social media. And this is that leaving before the performance further reinforces the divisions in our society. The Us vs. Them dichotomy. The US who believes in justice and works for these issues as opposed to THEM – those wealthy entitled rich white folks who attend the symphony; Or – the US who are civilized and like to be entertained at the symphony vs. THEM, those outsiders and troublemakers who interrupt my evening outing. These are two sides of the same coin. But I think both attitudes are myopic and are simply not in touch with reality.
Now, I certainly understand that there is the impression that the arts – especially the performing arts, classical music, chamber music, orchestras and operas – are for the wealthy and the entitled. This is partly due to the fact that the performing arts require a lot of financial resources. It is expensive to produce opera and maintain a great orchestra. And in our day of declining government support a lot of the money comes from wealthy men and women. This is a two-edged sword. The capital is desperately needed and without it orchestras and opera companies could not continue. But it does give the impression of elitism, which is not aided by the attitudes of some of these wealthy donors who seem to glory in this elitism and send their contributions with a large dose of expectation that they get to call at least some of the shots. This attitude of entitlement is, in my view, one of the most dangerous challenges to the performing arts. Wealthy, entitled men and women who have no qualifications other than their money dictating artistic values and issues. We see this playing out in Atlanta right now, and I have seen it over and over again in lots of other arts organizations from Peoria to Minneapolis.
“But I come to the opera/to the symphony to be entertained!” Then you have come to the wrong place. Entertainment is only one dimension of great art. It will and must also connect you to something deep inside of you – it will and must push you to recognize the deeply human dimension of your life – your emotions, your losses, your joys, you sorrows – it is all there. And in the process it will also connect you to other human beings of all races and economic classes. This is what art is for and this is why the wealthy and powerful down through history have tried to control and suppress great art. It is dangerous. It is dangerous for folks to begin to get in touch with their own humanity and begin to see themselves in community with others. But it is also powerful and liberating.
For those with means – your support of the arts is both an obligation and an opportunity. It is a gift to the communities in which you live. What a great opportunity for you to be able to support this work which will touch so many people, for the performing arts belong to all the people. The St. Louis Symphony belongs to all the people of St. Louis – not just the donors, but to all the people – including the people of Ferguson! And this music can transform and deepen our commitment to each other and to the work of justice. This is why I want the protestors to come back to the symphony. It is their symphony too. That Brahms performance is for them and for Mike Brown and for all of us.
For… “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Isaiah 35:10 – Part II, Brahms “German Requiem.”