Thoughts on the Saint Louis Requiem Protest

Req Mike Brown

Via the Saint Louis Dispatch

Mike Brown

“Michael Brown protesters interrupted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Saturday night, causing a brief delay in the performance at Powell Symphony Hall.

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 an old civil rights tune,  “Which Side are You on?” 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.”

I wasn’t there, obviously, but I’m inclined to say the protesters did the right thing- certainly that their actions, to me, seem both justified and appropriate.

There have been many political protests at the Proms over the years, some poignant and effective, some simply disgraceful. It all has to do with motivation for the protest, respect for the audience, appropriateness of context and respect for the music. Interrupting the piece would have been disrespectful to music, musicians and audience. Protesting before a Requiem seems poignant and appropriate- someone ought to be singing in memory of any and all people killed by violence. Maybe the protest helped people hear the work with more open ears and raw nerves- probably upsetting, but eye opening. One friend of mine questioned whether staging a protest on private property was fair to the hall, the orchestra and the audience. I’m not sure I agree. If the concert hall can’t be the center of civic life, a hub for intellectual discussion, a place to share ideas, a place we can mourn, cry, scream, love and heal together, we may as well burn every concert hall to the ground. When we value genteel niceties and professional convenience over the existential questions of right and wrong, life and death, we, as artists, have probably   made ourselves completely  irrelevant.

Classical music was once the most political of art forms. Beethoven wrote the Eroica in support of Napoleon’s struggles for liberty and freedom from an oppressive monarchy. When Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, Beethoven famously scratched out the dedication to the fallen hero. Wagner may have been a toxic soul, but he was deeply engaged in political ideas and clearly saw his music as, among other things, an instrument of social and political change. Sibelius’s music helped fuel the Finnish struggle for liberation from Russian occupation, and Verdi’s helped bring together Italy into a modern and united country. Mozart’s three great operas based on libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte were provocative and highly controversial political statements questioning the birthright of the ruling class, the inherent nobility of the noble, and the wisdom and decency of those who rule. Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, the War Requiem, is a pacifist cris de coeur, that not only reminds us of the utter futility of industrial scale mass murder, but also of the fundamental humanity of those on both sides of any conflict. Shostakovich described much of his music as a gallery of tombstones- memorials to victims of Stalinist terrors and Nazi atrocities. Rostropovich’s performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto during the 1968 Russian crushing of the Prague Spring remains one of the musical and social high-points of Proms history.  I could go on.

It has been a widely accepted truism in my lifetime that music and politics ought to be kept separate. There is a kernel of wisdom in this idea. Music ought to bring us together, not drive us apart, and I know that by keeping my political ideals out of the discussion to the best of my ability in the workplace, I’ve been able to form countless friendships and vital collaborations with people who have very different political outlooks and world-views from me. The social act of making and sharing music has provided a framework and a forum for me, and them I hope, to find common ground. It’s important we nurture that fragile shared public space.

On the other hand, if we can’t agree on the rightness and wrongness of certain things, what is the point of that public space? If we can’t find some common ground in our understanding of massive historical events and social problems, what hope to we have of improving the human condition? How perfect is it that the protesters sang  “Which Side are You on?”  I read that as referring to the side of life or the side of death, the side of love or the side of hate, the side of peace or the side of murder. Too many people seem to be seeing it terms of the side of white people or the side of black people, the side of the cops or the side of Mike Brown.  Simply agreeing on the pleasant sound made by a fine orchestra and chorus performing Brahms is not enough.  Classical music, worried about alienating funders and scaring off audience, has completely neutered itself in my lifetime. Politics is a combative business- a rough and imprecise way of working through the problems society faces. All too often, in order to appear reasonable and unbiased, our social discourse offers equal time to both right and wrong. Art can help us to illuminate and clarify what is right and what is wrong by engaging and awakening our sense of empathy.  Which Side are You on? We hope you’re on the side of empathy.

We call a Requiem a “Mass for the Dead” but that’s a misleading bit of shorthand. It’s better thought of as a “Mass of Remembrance for the Survivors” (my teacher, Gerhard Samuel, wrote an important work called “Requiem for Survivors” that explores this very idea).  A Requiem exists to give voice to the pain of loss and to help us find reason and comfort in our darkest hours. The media belittles and trivializes human life at every turn. If this week’s protest helped anyone to listen to Brahms’s music with more empathy, to think about the value of Mike Brown’s life and the loss being endured by  his family, I think that’s a positive thing.  If the performance that followed the protest could have given some solace to Mr Brown’s family or the survivors of any of the many violent deaths plaguing our society, that would have been a wonderful thing. If we can’t agree that killing is wrong, that violent deaths are always a tragedy, what hope do we have? If the words of Brahms’ Requiem are simply a framework for some beautiful music that let’s the performers show how accomplished they are and let the audience relax after a busy week, I don’t know why we’d bother struggling on to raise money to put on concerts. This is supposed to be life or death stuff- infinitely raw and relevant.

“You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you.

Behold me:
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation.

I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother”




You may also enjoy reading


UPDATED- Monday, 6 October

It’s been wonderful to see the very strong and overwhelmingly positive response to this post. It’s particularly nice to be able to engage with new readers. Welcome to everyone visiting for the first time.

Almost all the comments I’ve received here have been very positive. One area of discussion that has emerged is the effect the protest had on some of those in the building. One commenter was particularly concerned that  elderly patrons and the ushers, who often tend to be older, might have felt threatened or feared for their safety in the early moments of the protest. Thomas J, playing principal horn in the concert, commented below ” I can only say that while the protest ultimately proved beautifully sung and peaceful, to those of us about to commit ourselves to this profound work and it’s attendant need for focus, more than a few of us felt unsettled,” going on to say “We simply didn’t know what else was up the protesters’ sleeves, and saw no one to allay our fears.” I have every confidence that the musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony rose above the disruption and delivered the kind of performance that everyone there needed to hear- they’re one of the greatest orchestras in North America and their musical shoulders are very broad.

I think these are perfectly legitimate issues to raise, and I hope the protest organizers will take them to heart. If the goal of this movement is justice and healing a divided society, empathy and respect for others has to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Hopefully, the peaceful and respectful nature of this protest will help allay fears of members of the general public present going forward. It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful protest than one which consists of singing and dropping folded hearts, but protest of any kind in these strange and violent times has the potential to make perfectly well-intentioned people very uncomfortable. While the sentiment of “black lives matter” is obviously one that needs to be articulated as part of the movement, I found the switch from singing to shouting surprisingly jarring and wish only that those words could have been set to music as well. I would implore anyone involved in or considering future protests to think of the state-of-mind and well-being of those people you are asking to be your witnesses. Make sure they know your intentions are respectful and peaceful. Build empathy by modelling empathy.

Update 7 October

Thanks again to everyone for reading and commenting.

As this moment begins to run its course, I think a word of praise is due to everyone at the Saint Louis Symphony who have, as far as I can see, handled the entire event and its aftermath with total class and professionalism, from the musicians to the broadcast team. Well done, everyone- a perfect example of how a great orchestra is more than just great performances.

Update- 9 October

A podcast follow-up from WQXR in New York. I talk about the relationship between classical music, politics and protest with host Naomi Lewin and author and Washington Post culture writer, Philip Kennicott . Naomi also interviews Sarah Bryan Miller, music critic of the St Louis Post-Dispatch.

There’s also this article from the Riverfront Times which is a nice summary and discussion of what you’ve just read here.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

46 comments on “Thoughts on the Saint Louis Requiem Protest”

  1. Kenneth Woods
  2. Jordan

    Via FB
    I hoped and prayed that someone on this thread would give voice to the disquiet I felt when reading the other views expressed. And you have done so with the utmost care and grace. Thank you.

    I will add only that in such baldly unjust times as these, we simply must choose justice over comfort. And we must do so consistently. Just because a thing is unlawful does not necessarily make it unjust. (e.g. Hong Kong)

    Ownership of the premises cannot be the deal-breaking factor, it must be justice.

  3. Erin

    Via FB

    Peaceful protest should be welcomed in performance venues.

  4. Emi

    Via FB

    I believe that Ken Woods is right on all accounts, though as a former legal professional, I understand the concern expressed about property. I hope this opened people’s eyes, ears, hearts and minds not to the music, but to the plight of gun violence and racism in the United States. Music is a universal language that everyone is capable of communicating in and understanding. What better way to get people to think!

  5. Reid

    Via FB

    Having slept on it, I’m with Ken on this one. It appears to be well-timed (not during music), non-violent, and on an important issue. Aside from his reminder of the role music has had in social issues historically, in my lifetime we have fallen into the expectation that music enriches our real lives; it’s a supplement or a luxury. Sometimes real life enriches music. It’s Brahms’ Requiem, it’s in the vernacular, it’s for the people.

  6. Shi

    Via FB

    I think it’s unfair to equate hard, consistent, beautifully done work – and the enjoyment of it – with niceties. Professional musicians don’t perform to be “nice” and it’s difficult, rewarding work that few have the ability and/or discipline to do and do well. This was hardly the time or place. Again I ask, what was the end game here? What was the goal, and how will anyone know once it has been met?

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Shi- I think you and I see this through a different prism. I get the sense that you see this action as somehow distracting from the music. I fundamentally disagree. I can hardly imagine a more inspiring context in which to conduct the Brahms, or a more touching or electric atmosphere in which to hear it.If the concert hall is not the place what is?

  8. Toby

    Via FB

    An intelligent and thoughtful commentary. Please continue to encourage independent thought without judgment. I applaud you!

  9. Marc


    What you fail to recognize is that Powell Symphony Hall had a lot of empty seats. And sadly It takes a protest to get an orchestra concert on the news. That should worry you greatly. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

    Maybe concert music should contain a message, a divisive one that rips apart any assembly of conformity. A modern concert program has become nothing more than an aural cocktail for the well-to-do and intellectually aloof more concern with their attire than the sublime beauty of great art. That is why concerts make a great platform to stage a protest.

    Concert music is not the art of our time, it had its run. Something else yet to be explored must advance its evolution, and that means a great deal of division and discontinuity. Art, great art that is, must go beyond stimulation, beyond the puerile notion of “communal togetherness” and agitate the conscience to the point where nothing else matters. Films can do this, books certainly can do this, even visual art can do this. I am afraid concert music has lost its message and the banality of the art form came about from safe programming and cultural isolationism. The real protest is the silent one of seeing those empty seats in an audience of white affluent people too complacent to accept any change.

    That was the real message of the protest at Powell Hall.

  10. Bruce

    “Ken Woods and Jordan Smith, you both are some of the most fine music makers we have in our world today and really appreciate your opinion on this.

    Do I agree with the message? Absolutely! Do I agree with the protest (in general)? Yes! Do I agree that it should have happen at the time without the prior consent of the St. Louis Symphony or their guest conductor/musicians? No. And here’s why….as much as we want to invoke and make change happen, there are other ways to get your beliefs across that is respectful to everyone involved. The reason why folks protest is to bring attention to a cause. This was successfully done (we all can see this). My question is now how much did this cost. Does it push forward or does it set everyone back? In my opinion…it made a statement known to the public and did exactly what it was intended to do, start more conversation. The downside…folks in St. Louis who have already made their minds up about this issue…this just solidified their opinion and became highly ineffective.

    The old saying goes that we need to go two steps back to go one step forward. Well, the folks that will ultimately get blamed for this is the African American community. The things my elders fought for in St. Louis are being undone. My Aunt and Uncle (Otis Walker and Earline Walker) for advice on how to be effective The opinions that we need to change are not the ones who agree with us, but those who have already made up their minds and think the cause is trivial.

    Here’s the deal: Most of us, if not everyone, DON’T have a problem with the message. We are on the same side and think racism/gun violence/being shot and unarmed is crap and want to see change.

    Where we differ is how we battle it philosophically and with what actions.

    On the front that the Brahms Requiem was chosen to help magnify the message, you are absolutely right Ken. This provides a complete NEW layer to experience the message and poignant nature that came from Brahms’ pen.

    Jessie, yes, you are correct. Everyone purchased a ticket and was not trespassing. But the minute you “break the law”, the law falls on the side of the symphony/owners of the space if proper steps were taken to have them removed. Perfect example: Clapping between movements is ok (a few glares here and there but whatever)…booing the conductor/orchestra and preventing the performance from continuing, no matter if the audience agrees or not, is not cool.

    The precedent of protesting whenever and wherever we want operates on a very fine line. I think we all can agree that this event was effective in continuing the conversation that hopefully will not die.”

  11. Thomas J

    As the first horn on that performance, I can only say that while the protest ultimately proved beautifully sung and peaceful, to those of us about to commit ourselves to this profound work and it’s attendant need for focus, more than a few of us felt unsettled. We simply didn’t know what else was up the protesters’ sleeves, and saw no one to allay our fears.

  12. Ed

    Not to argue the horrific manner of mike Browns murder, but … There is some question abt his character. It is alleged that he brazenly stole from a store, while intimidating the owner with his size and manner. At the time of the confrontation, it is alleged, that he was advancing on the policeman, allegedly, with his hands up. Perhaps in a manner also threatening.
    I don’t know. There may be two sides to this story. It may be more complicated than the media is telling. The pain of the parents is real, no doubt. But just maybe Mike Brown is not as pure a martyr as the protesters would like us to think.
    That there is a serious problem of racial inequality is in no doubt.
    ….just sayin’.

  13. Vaughan

    Thank you for your response to the protest. You are obviously a fine musician but you are also an amazing commentator. Your words are beautiful and well thought out.

  14. L

    Via FB

    “Classical music, worried about alienating funders and scaring off audience, has completely neutered itself in my lifetime.” Or, as someone once wrote to me after I aired something that didn’t have a hum-able melody, “I listen to your station to shut the world out…I don’t want music that makes me think!”

  15. Joshua Trost

    The author’s update stemming from comments on the original post makes me rather sad, and I think he is grossly out of touch with reality(as I would expect most white professional classical orchestra conductors must be). Anybody who initially reacted to the somber song, banner displays, and chanting with fear is part of the problem, and they likely need to experience their fear and have the opportunity to question the roots of it. Their discomfort surely lies more with having to confront their thoughts on the murder and surrounding issues of race and oppression and police violence than anything else. There is zero precedent for the perpetration of violence being prefaced with solemn song and banner memorials. Imploring protesters to please consider the state of mind and well-being of the audience of the protest strikes me as ridiculous armchair protest directing; it’s crystal clear they did exactly that. It seems to me that the real critique is more that rich white people just can’t bear the thought of poor people disrupting their bathroom breaks with a few moments of self-articulated expression in a format other than a nice negro spiritual. It’s not as if the volume level remotely approached the decibels of the orchestra at full bore. Maybe they needed a nice white priest to have stood and paraphrased the famous Berrigan statement on the Catonsville Nine torching of draft records with napalm; “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the crack of loud voices instead of bullets…”

  16. JC

    I appreciated the original post, especially as I do not know the history of many of these artists. Thank you. The UPDATE sounds like, “Let me tell you how to adjust your mourning and anger to accommodate our fears.” This is problematic as it de-centers the needs and feelings of those most affected by the tragedy and re-centers those in the position of privilege. Having to bend oneself to accommodate the irrational or excessive fears of privileged people is what Mike Brown’s murder is fundamentally about.

  17. Jacinthe Connor

    Thank you Mr. Woods. Brilliant, thoughtful and true.. I’m filled with gratitude in reading this, as I’m sure many are. As we watch the fabric of this culture and society continue to fray, where one would have hoped to look to the prescribed roles to safe keep decency, truth and order, we are indeed finding very little reassurance that humanity will improve. The comments are equally interesting and candid. In fact baring witness to the profound effect of this particular “statement” protest… Each one of us needs to be stirred in order to bring change. Comfort often renders humans lazy and careless. How else, if not through the universal language of the arts, in any form and style, everywhere, can humanity begin to understand, care, and survive?

  18. Kenneth Woods

    Hi JC

    Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear you interpreted my update as you describe (“Let me tell you how to adjust your mourning and anger to accommodate our fears.” ). That’s not at all what I was saying.

    I would encourage you to consider whether the body of people at that concert was far more diverse than you realize. There are people on fixed incomes who come to concerts in spite of the fact that they’re both physically frail and economically strapped. I know from my own orchestras that many of our most loyal listeners are anything but privileged. They come to concerts despite financial hardback and physical challenges because they love the music.

    Among those I would particularly consider you to think of are the ushers, many of whom (at most orchestras) are volunteers who usher because it’s the only way they can come to concerts or support the orchestra. They constitute a very racially diverse group of people- I doubt very much that they’re well trained in responding to protests, and I know from people who were there that some of them– decent, caring people who support the cause of the protesters– were genuinely scared until it became clear that the protest was peaceful.

    It’s not about “Having to bend oneself to accommodate the irrational or excessive fears of privileged people,” it’s about advancing your cause and bringing people together.

  19. Sarah

    Via FB

    Thank you so much. Saw this on a friend’s post and shared with for my musician/activist friends to read.

  20. Natalie

    This was very beautiful. I appreciate every individual who had the courage to do this. It doesn’t matter if we agree or disagree on where it was done. It was done. And it made me feel connected to the pain felt in St. Louis, the empathy in the hearts of the protesters, and it gave me hope that as a nation we are not digressing back to a time of unjustified hate and separation.

    I had given up, and just accepted that nothing can stop the never dying fatal racism in America. Nothing. I was feeling defeated and this protest touched my heart. I am not a mother, but my nephews are growing up, getting older, and it scares me to death to think of them in this world where they could be shot to death by a police officer like Sean Bell was on his wedding day, or like Amadou Diallo on his front porch, or Mike Brown with his hands up.

    Someone asked “What was the point of this?” The point of theses protests, what the protesters are calling for is justice. Justice = Police Officers acting with excessive force resulting in the death of an unarmed individual should be punished by law. A badge doesn’t mean that society’s laws don’t apply to you. If it was punishable by law it wouldn’t happen so much. And some of the families who have experienced this violence can have justice. I believe that’s what they mean. “Justice for Mike Brown is Justice for us all.” Thanks again for opening my heart.

  21. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Joshua

    I would encourage you ask whether your remark that “I think he is grossly out of touch with reality(as I would expect most white professional classical orchestra conductors must be)” actually shows a disappointing lack of anything like an up-to-date grasp on the realities of musical life. Do you really think we’re all driving around in limos wearing capes and speaking with Central European accents sipping brandy and mixing with royalty? I hope you don’t think we’re all white. Or male. And what makes you think I only conduct classical music, or only conduct orchestras? What other prejudices are you carrying with you? Can you guess which of the other commentators in this thread are conductors? Can you guess which of them (which of the other conductors!) is white, black, Asian or none-of-the-above?

    I hear what you are saying about the lack of precedence “for the perpetration of violence being prefaced with solemn song” but these are dark and dangerous times. Even if the protesters were completely non-violent, how could you know there wasn’t some gun nut vigilante in the audience, or an overzealous off-duty cop who had heard enough protest? I think the protesters were very brave- in some ways, protesting in unexpected locations could be more dangerous than the mass protests we saw early- the chances for a rogue cop or vigilante to do something terrible are much higher.

    I hope that the organizers of the protest are pleased to see how many members of the orchestra and the audience found their actions inspiring and welcome. Others reported being completely in support of the protesters’ aims, but expressed their concerns about the wellfare of vulnerable people in the building. Are the voices of people who agree with you on substance but not on method not worth listening to? Don’t you want to be as effective as you can in advancing your cause, or is it about something else.

    I’d call the event a triumph of free speech, and my Update is just one person’s take on how the next one can be even more effective.

  22. Beth

    I was there and I was not at all frightened. Confused at first, then shocked, then ultimately moved. It is a glaring indictment on the state of racism in St. Louis and unfortunately one that is right on. It is not a matter of whites being actively racists, just a matter of “I don’t live over there so what should I care?” I thought the protesters picked the perfect place to voice their concerns and did so in a thoughtful way. Powell Hall is situated in a predominantly black neighborhood and the protesters choice of this venue was a great reminder of “we don’t live ‘over there’, we live RIGHT HERE where you come to enjoy yourself so you should care.”

  23. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Jacinthe- Thank you so much for your kind and deeply felt words There is much wisdom in your final two sentences. Thank you

    “Comfort often renders humans lazy and careless. How else, if not through the universal language of the arts, in any form and style, everywhere, can humanity begin to understand, care, and survive?”

  24. Theodore Harvey

    Mr Harvey’s comment has been redacted as its tone is not appropriate for this forum. Readers who crave “a Eurocentric reactionary monarchist and traditionalist Anglican” perspective are invited to visit his blog, which is linked above.

  25. Elizabeth Vega

    Thank you!! Thank you!! As one of the organizers of Requiem for Mike Brown you said what I was feeling but with so much more eloquence. Bravo!! I will tell you that the I was surprised to find myself weeping during the first four songs. The lyrics spoke to exactly what myself and fellow protesters were going through — the grief, the resilience, the willingness to stand up to the mighty despite incredible obstacles. It was then I knew we were right where we were supposed to be. The music fed my courage. Many have wondered why we didn’t stay. We left because we wanted people to not worry about another action. Our hope was that this would hold the space for the audience to feel the lyrics of the requiem. On a side note — I keep hearing how everyone is celebrating this because it was a peaceful protest. I will counter that all the protests I have attended since day one and many with the young people painted as “violent” have been peaceful. The only difference in this protest is that we dressed up and sang our sentiments. This occurred because of the courageous young people who have been tear gassed, thrown on the pavement and plucked from sidewalks and thrown into jail. We are united in both our anger at this injustice and commitment to usher in change.

  26. victoria

    Regarding those in the concert hall who may have felt “unsettled” or possibly fearful about what the protesters were going to do next: perhaps you were given a small taste of what many people of color feel every single time they encounter a police officer.

  27. Paul Stamler

    Thank you for a moving and appropriate commentary. I wasn’t at the symphony that night, but I wish I had been. I think an important part of the protest was that the singers sang beautifully, in keeping with the time and place. The song they sang was “Which Side Are You On?”, which came out of the labor movement of Anglo-American coal miners engaged in a bitter struggle in Harlan County, KY (and there were deaths in that struggle too). The author of the lyrics, Florence Reece, used a traditional hymn for the melody, one which I believe was part of both Anglo- and African-American traditions. The song was picked up and adapted by the African-American freedom movement in the 1960s. The song, which resonates between the two parallel cultures in this nation, reverberated through Powell Hall that night in a respectful, compassionate demonstration of what can bring us together. Compassion, outrage, yes, anger at the way things have been but should never be again — brought to the surface with music, perhaps the most powerful of human expressions. Sing out, brothers and sisters, until justice rolls like a mighty stream. As Carl Sandburg wrote, “In the darkness with a great bundle of grief the people march.”

  28. Roger Snyder

    Thank you Mr. Woods for your comments on the protest. I appreciate reading your thoughts on this action.

    I have helped organize several score demonstrations over the years, and participated in even more. All were based in nonviolence, some risking arrest – many of those leading to arrest.

    Organizers of demonstrations do think about the message, how it is going to be delivered, and how it will be received. It is the responsibility of those putting out the message to communicate, not blame those that don’t hear it for not hearing. However, you do know that some people, for various reasons, may not, or will not hear your message.

    Demonstrations are held for a number of reasons, and to accomplish a variety of goals. It could be just to bear witness, to publicize something, to apply pressure, to influence people of power, (be it people in power, or the power of the people), or to refuse to go along with an injustice or wrong, an act on conscience. Sometime you will makes people uncomfortable. Sometimes that is the plan. Sometimes people should be uncomfortable, no longer complacent, and start thinking or think further.

    While you don’t want to turn off your audience, you do need to agitate. Just speaking out will agitate some people. Raising tough issues will always put off some, but tough issues need to be raised. We have a duty to work for social change, and that work takes a number of forms. It may be letter writing, or it may be Civil Disobedience.

    All of the actions I have been involved in were based in the principles of nonviolence. In nonviolence, you have respect and concern for people you agree with and those you oppose. People will learn that you are based in nonviolence by your words and deeds. But as these demonstrators sang, you challenge people to choose the side of justice, rights, a better society, or of whatever change for the better your are seeking to obtain.

    As, at least according to some accounts, when Emerson visited Thoreau in jail after he was imprisoned for refusing to pay a pool tax, asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

    I thought this was a powerful effective demonstration. Early on in the Ferguson news coverage, I heard it reported that one person said they need violence in Ferguson, since violence is the only way to change things like the shooting of Michael Brown. That saddened me, as violence has never led to the end of violence, never led to justice. Only nonviolent action can lead to the this change, and while the symphony action may be just one small step, it was a one of beauty and power.

    I thank you again for your insightful comments.

  29. Isabella Routlier

    Dear Maestro Woods,

    I wish to express much gratitude and heartfelt support for your views on social discourse! The concert hall can be considered a public forum although a highly stylized one.

    The very nature of music as art form naturally effects the emotions of the listeners. THAT is its purpose.

    As one who has been immersed in this art form during an entire life, I can offer thanks that this balm exists in our world!

    Very sincerely yours!

  30. Kevin

    Thank you for a very thoughtful piece and the role of art in societal change. I was with you until I read your update which seemed to back away from your earlier statements.

    It is not appropriate to ask those fighting for life and death matters to consider not making the witnesses feel uncomfortable. The whole point and purpose of the protest, and any protest, should be to bring a level of discomfort, to jar us out of our complacency and remind us that someone else is suffering.

    For the most part governments and businesses have quieted protests over the last 40-50 years by allowing space for protests – space in highly controlled and removed locations. By doing this, protests are neutralized and the comfortable can continue to be comfortable while the suffering or injustice continues.

    What these protestors did was to bring that suffering and injustice to the comfortable. The discomfort of a few concert goers and the orchestra is miniscule compared to the discomfort of a mother and father who had to bury their 18 year old son.

  31. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Kevin

    Thank you for your comment. There is absolutely no backing away in my update. You may wish to read my relies to JC and Joshua, which I hope make clear where I’m coming from. I think the protesters were keenly aware that they were in the presence of a diverse group of people- a concert audience is no monolithic gathering of the rich and comfortable. There were certainly many in the audience and on stage who completely supported the action. I would encourage you to think along those same lines. The organizers’ tact and class is to be applauded, but it doesn’t hurt to continue to reflect on what we can do to make more vulnerable people feel safe and confident in the presence of a protest. Of course, there are plenty who need their cages rattled- that’s not who I’m talking about and I hope my comments above make that clear.

    Thanks again for reading

  32. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Elizabeth

    Thank you!

    You should all be very proud of what you’ve achieved. I hope it helps us all on the path to a more just society. I’m sure you’ve done a great service to the orchestra and to classical music, too.

    Many congrats and thanks again


  33. Suzanne

    Thank you for this beautiful, thoughtful post. I do not typically like this type of music and didn’t know about the socio-political history behind many such performers and their music. In listening to Requiem in the context of Mike Brown’s death and this protest, I am deeply moved. I feel the rawness and tenderness in the work that I was previously alienated from experiencing. Thank you!

  34. Sheila

    That was the evening of Yom Kippur–family time–so I had made my ticket for the Sunday afternoon performance. I’m sorry I missed the protest.The news reports were misleading. I thought there had been more theater & tumult. (Shades of Percy Green’s protests at the Veiled Prophet Ball & the Cathedral). I was looking for an extra alertness in the ushers & crossing-guards, but all was peace. My cousin, on Fulbright in Sarajevo, featured your blog on hers & I am happy to discover it. I wish the last selection had been fully labeled.

  35. Joanne

    Joshua Trost- I COMPLETELY understand what you are saying. I was with Kenneth Woods 100% until the “here’s how you can do it better next time so that the sensibilities of white folks are better taken care of” comment. (And I’m sure that someone will reply immediately and give the names of the few people of color present, but I don’t care.) If counting the non-whites present on your fingers makes it easier for you to discount the hard-to-hear sentiment I’m laying out, count away. Not being able to, not wanting to, and not having any repercussions for not “hearing” things that point out white privilege IS the privilege. But you have no idea what I’m saying so save yourself some time and skip the rest of my comment simply because you can and you won’t understand anyway. For everyone else, I’ll continue. Black and brown people don’t get to say “hey racism please take these suggestions into consideration next time you enact horrific violence on me and people who look like me”. So to those white folks (and the few people of color I’m sure everyone is going to point out as fast as they can) who feared for their safety for all of what… 8 minutes, because a few people stood up and sang and then abruptly starting chanting BLACK LIVES MATTER….. I don’t care about your 8 minutes of fear. Your 8 minutes means nothing to people who live under constant threat of the aforementioned horrific violence EVERY DAY OF THEIR LIVES. Sorry, but I just don’t care about your 8 minutes. Instead of agonizing over those life-altering 8 minutes, maybe think about what you personally can do to help the fight for justice in this country. Do what you can, where you can, with what you have and give this incredible moment in your life more meaning than a few facebook and twitter posts and a good story at the water cooler. Make this moment mean something.

  36. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Joanne

    Thank you very much for your comment. I completely and totally agree with everything you say except for your characterization of what I have written.

    I’d implore you to read my reply to Joshua more carefully. To summarize, I’m not talking about ruffling the feathers of the general audience. I was passing on the reactions of people who were there who expressed a concern for the welfare of vulnerable and elderly members of the audience and staff. It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful or more touching protest, but I also think that if you’re trying to win hearts and minds and advance a cause, having a sense of empathy for your audience (which these protesters clearly did) makes you a more effective and persuasive advocate.

    Many thanks


  37. Robert D. Ludden

    I read this commentary with fear, and emerged from it with gratitude that members of the orchestra, and those of leadership roles would support this protest and express that support. Though I have never heard the St. Louis orchestra and probably never will have a chance to, I do know one of its musicians, and much appreciate the endorsement of protest against racism and violence. On behalf of peace and brotherhood, thank you!!!

  38. Peter

    Beyond the specific question of social justice in this instance, the protest incident does raise other important questions about our attitudes to great music and concert life in general. How do we prevent listening to these masterworks from becoming a matter of empty routine or at best a kind of comfort food for the well-paid? Clearly a Beethoven symphony was meant to wake people up, to make them think outside the box, to develop ethical awareness. Instead, Beethoven has come to represent a lazy way of paying lip-service to idealism, one that remains extremely safe and unchallenging. It is a box we can tick and feel better about ourselves, like going to church on a Sunday, but behaving badly the rest of the week.

    There are occasions when the historical moment demands an overt response from musicians – dedicating concerts, acknowledging public grief, charity performance etc – and that is fine, if it is a spontaneous expression of the consensus and the players want to do it. But these occasions define themselves and we recognise them when they occur – 9/11, the Tsunami etc. Of course, we don’t want concerts to become explicitly political or religious, and the programme note and pre-concert talk can tackle some of the big questions around this music and what it stands for without sermonising directly. Anyone who doesn’t want to know is not confronted against their will with this wider context. Public institutions belong to everyone, and taking sides in more contentious matters or because a few individuals feel strongly, does not seem to be what these institutions are best placed to do. It is important that concerts remain a neutral zone regarding beliefs and values explicitly expressed; a source of unity rather than division.

    But that should not make us shy away from raising some of the questions about what motivates people to listen to great music and what they derive from it. A lot of people think that by listening to the great works they display their moral and cultural superiority over those less musically literate or those cultures that don’t have this rich tradition. That is based on the often unconscious assumption that classical music is performed by an elite for an elite. No wonder it becomes a soft target for those fighting against social injustice. It is a simplistic argument of course to condemn an art-form in that way, but the creation of over-paid musical superstars doesn’t help the case. We put them on a pedestal and would be disappointed if they were not. Glamour requires it, and glamour is part of musical life whether we like it or not.

    Making music like the Brahms Requiem directly relevant to here and now, without becoming too explicit regarding major social and political issues or appearing to preach down to an audience would not be straight-forward, but perhaps a conductor could make a personal statement prior to a concert about what the work means to them, and this would then be offered only as an opinion not an institutional position. Or could a conductor lead a discussion with the members of the orchestra during rehearsal about what the they want the work to mean and then the outcome of that conversation could be shared with the audience? Of course, this could easily descend into blandness – ‘motherhood and apple-pie’ – or clichéd sentimentality, but if it stimulated the audience to embark on a similar exploration of meaning, it might rejuvenate some of these old war horses.

    How do we make the symphony concert meaningful and relevant to modern people in an age of complex social and ethical issues? We have to find a a way, since the alternative is more and more bland concerts offered as a bourgeois narcotic – Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *