Politics and Music: Ferguson Protest at the Saint Louis Symphony

Banners hung from the balcony at Powell Hall during recent protest.

Banners hung from the balcony at Powell Hall during the recent protest.

This past Saturday’s Saint Louis Symphony concert at Powell Hall became the stage for a peaceful protest of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. A performance of Brahms’ German Requiem was delayed briefly as a flash mob throughout the hall began singing,

Justice for Mike Brown is Justice for us All,
Which side are you on, friend? Which side are you on?

The well-sung protest lasted about a minute before the group left the hall on their own. Some members of the audience and orchestra applauded in support of the protesters, who had purchased tickets for the performance. A banner, unfurled from the balcony, urged concertgoers to “Join the Movement.” There seems to be a general consensus that both the protesters and the Saint Louis Symphony handled the situation with dignity and respect.

But the protest also revealed some unfortunate stereotypes (and realities) about symphonic concerts and perceived class and ethnic divisions. In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuels wrote that protesters “put on sports coats and fancy dresses and sat in on the St. Louis Symphony.” Quotes from one of the organizers of the flash mob suggested that the protest was an attempt to force wealthy members of the community out of their comfort zones towards an acknowledgment of the reality of racism. Both views seem to be built on the assumption that orchestra concerts are little more than social gatherings for wealthy elites. Nothing should be further from the truth. The Brahms Requiem and other masterworks have the power to speak to everyone and should be available to the entire community. At its core, listening to live music is a powerful individual experience, not a superficial social outing.

So what connections exist between politics, emotion and music? Often we assume that composers and performers are expressing their innermost feelings through music. However, music transcends politics, morality and individual expression to reach a reality which can be felt but cannot be put into words. Gustav Mahler described the experience of looking down at the page with the sensation that the music had not come from his intellect, but from somewhere else. In the most transcendent concerts, many musicians have experienced the rare and mysterious sensation of the music playing “through” them. At its essence, music isn’t about individual expression or the emotions of composers. It doesn’t tell stories. It goes beyond all of that, and in attuned moments, we find ourselves connected to a profound reality.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.

-W.H. Auden

 Deep River

Here is legendary African-American contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) singing the spiritual, Deep River:

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5 Responses to Politics and Music: Ferguson Protest at the Saint Louis Symphony

  1. Peter Lim October 6, 2014 at 4:46 am #

    Dear Maestro,

    I have benefited so much from your performances and views.
    Yours is one of the most valuable contacts I have made over LI—
    I do enjoy this.
    Too many postings in LI are trite, lack originality and often shallow and insincere.
    I wish to send you some music–write many melodies with Chinese, Japanese, Aussie, Irish overtones–20 will be published by a music co. in Melb.
    But I can’t locate your personal email address. Please oblige.

    With my esteem and best wishes
    Peter, Melbourne

  2. Gloria Ross October 6, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

    Mr. Judd,

    Robert Samuels wrote that protesters “put on sports coats and fancy dresses and sat in on the St. Louis Symphony.” Apparently, Mr. Samuels is under the impression that none of the protesters attend the Symphony. He is so very wrong. How did he think they came up with the idea?

    I believe that the second perception, however, has some merit. While certainly not all Symphony attendees are “wealthy members of the community” who are unacquainted with racism, most, I think, are much more likely to be people who can afford to be somewhat removed from many harsh realities.

    But I agree with you completely that music connects us to a profound reality. Thank you for your observations.

    Gloria Ross, St. Louis, Mo.

  3. Linda Rogers October 8, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    The perception that classical music is elitist does not come about by accident, nor is it inaccurate. Having worked for a number of years in arts administration in various types of organizations from classical music to community arts, I can say with conviction that there seems to be a type of nasty snobbishness that poisons many classical music and opera administrations and Board of Directors. I do not mean that everyone shares this attitude but rather that trying to deal with the snobs saps a lot of energy in trying to do anything new.

  4. Ms. Cynthia October 8, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

    In my search to find music that was relevant to students in my Urban String program I discovered that it was people of color who were the first to play Classical music in the New World as it was spread by Spanish Missions throughout Latin America and the South West during the Baroque Era.
    A musical form called a Fandango was created by the infusion of both cultures. It soon took the old world by storm. It was one of the most democratic pieces of music which shared participation by people of all classes.

  5. Ms. Cynthia October 8, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    It is time for children of color in America to reclaim their heritage

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