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Monday, October 6, 2014

Ferguson Protesters Lead Demonstration During St. Louis Symphony Rendition of Brahms' A German Requiem

Posted By on Mon, Oct 6, 2014 at 3:38 AM

Singing protesters display banners at Powell Hall. - SCREENSHOT FROM THE YOUTUBE VIDEO.
  • Screenshot from the YouTube video.
  • Singing protesters display banners at Powell Hall.

By now, much of the country is talking about the musical protest in honor of Michael Brown that occurred during the St. Louis Symphony performance at Powell Hall on October 4. But what people haven't fully grasped are the themes and symbolism in the SLSO piece, Johannes Brahms' A German Requiem, that powerfully connect the musicians with the demonstrators.

Four days before the performance and protest, the St. Louis Symphony had posted a Facebook update about the overarching theme of A German Requiem. "This moving requiem was written to console the living, rather than memorialize the departed," the post had said. It's not a far leap to speculate, then, that the people who had organized Saturday's demonstration had pointedly chosen this particular work of Brahms' both to promote Brown's legacy and to help heal those who loved him.

Read our complete coverage on Michael Brown and Ferguson here.

"Our mission here at the St. Louis Symphony is to enrich people's lives through the power of music. We embody that mission and believe in it wholeheartedly," Symphony publicist Erika Ebsworth-Goold tells RFT Music. "Music has the power to heal. It has the power to bring people together. It has the power to comfort in sorrow, to serve as a call to action."

For many audience members in Powell Hall, this particular call to action was a bit unexpected. At the end of intermission, the symphony and its chorus had taken the stage to perform the evening's second act. The musicians hadn't yet begun, though, when several demonstrators stood and began singing an amended version of "Which Side Are You On," a 1931 tune that supported unionization rights for coal miners. More and more singers soon followed from their places around the auditorium.

"At first, there was confusion for the audience, musicians and our live radio broadcast on KWMU," Ebsworth-Goold explains (Listen to a snippet of the KWMU broadcast here). "Our guest conductor and soloists had just joined the orchestra and chorus on the stage and when the singing began, it took everyone by surprise."

Melissa Brooks, associate principal cello, was on stage Saturday during the peaceful demonstration.

"As soon as a second person stood and sang and I heard them say 'Mike Brown,' I knew what was happening," Brooks says. "I could also see pretty well and was trying to take in as much as I could. Some people were standing and clapping, some people looked uncomfortable and many stood and started taking pictures."

click to enlarge Guest conductor Markus Stenz and members of the symphony as the demonstrators conclude their song. - SCREENSHOT FROM THE YOUTUBE VIDEO.
  • Screenshot from the YouTube video.
  • Guest conductor Markus Stenz and members of the symphony as the demonstrators conclude their song.

Demonstrators in the balcony unfurled several banners with messages such as "Requiem for Mike Brown, 1996-2014," a clear play on Brahms' title A German Requiem in memory of the eighteen-year-old man who was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. Guest conductor Markus Stenz faced the demonstrators and the symphony musicians calmly took in the scene, giving the demonstrators space to say their piece.

"I applauded, as well as some of my colleagues. I was most grateful for our conductor's very respectful and accepting response," Brooks remembers. "I can really only speak to how I felt on stage, which was, frankly, blown away and energized. I thought it was an extremely well timed, well orchestrated and quite beautiful way to protest." Watch a video from the protest on page two.

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