Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Protest at Powell: Brahms' German Requiem comes home

Political controversy isn't something that pops up often in connection with the St. Louis Symphony, but last Saturday a brief and well-organized protest just before the second half of an all-Brahms program gained national attention—and made the #Brahms and #Requiem hashtags trending items on Twitter.

For those of you who somehow missed it, here, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch web site, is what happened at the Saturday, October 4th, concert by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus just after intermission, as guest conductor Markus Stenz prepared to lead the orchestra and chorus in Brahms' "German Requiem":

The orchestra and chorus were preparing to perform Johannes Brahms' Requiem just after intermission when two audience members in the middle aisle on the main floor began singing "Which Side are You On?" - an organized labor tune with origins in the infamous 1931 Harlan, Kentucky coal strike.

They soon were joined, in harmony, by other protesters, who stood at seats in various locations on the main floor and in the balcony.

The protesters then unfurled three hand-painted banners and hung them from the Dress Circle boxes. One banner listed the birth and death date of Brown, who was shot by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

The five-minute interruption was met with a smattering of applause from some audience members, as well as members of the orchestra and chorus. Others simply watched as the orchestra remained silent.

The protest ended quietly as participants left voluntarily, chanting, "Black lives matter." Conductor Markus Stenz resumed the concert shortly thereafter.

You can see a video of the event on YouTube, courtesy of the St. Louis American.

Reactions afterwards varied, largely breaking along the racial and political lines that you might expect. Those who were convinced that Brown was the victim of police violence approved, those who were equally convinced that he was (as one concert-goer was overheard o say) "a thug" were outraged. For me, though, the most appropriate response came from Post-Dispatch music critic Sarah Bryan Miller in her review of the concert, where she simply noted that the "next words heard were sung from the stage, 'Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,' in Martin Luther's translation of the words of Jesus: 'Blest are they that mourn.'"

Brahms in 1853
What would Brahms have made of this? Speculation is dangerous, but it's worth noting that Brahms, an agnostic, made a great point of removing many of the explicitly Christian elements of the classic requiem mass. In fact, as teacher and essayist Nancy Thuleen writes in her article on the "German Requiem," Brahms "was heard to insist that his Requiem was intended for all humanity, despite (or indeed because of) its title; its innate themes of melancholy and consolation are applicable to any number of occasions." Including, perhaps, the occasion of mourning for a life lost.

As SLSO Chorus director Amy Kaiser points out in the concert's program notes, the "German Requiem" is "all about comfort for the living. People consider it a healing piece. There's no Dies irae. There is the sound of the last trumpet, but it's joyful, not fearful. A victory over death."

As I have noted previously, I'm one of the (apparently) small number of people in the world who still isn't sure what happened on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, back in August. But a young man is dead before his time, and if you're going to publicly mourn that event, doing it in company with Brahms isn't the worst idea in the world. It's a shame, though, that the protesters didn't feel they could stay for the rest of the concert; Brahms' music might have had a chance to demonstrate those healing powers of which Ms. Kaiser spoke. Heaven only knows, we could all use some of that these days.

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