Reading about two recent concerts got me thinking again about the “sanctity” of the concert hall and the role of the audience. In one, the performance was “interrupted” by a musical protest by members of the audience, while in the other, the applause after a premiere was mixed with boos, something the review found noteworthy. Today’s post is about the first one – I’ll look at the second later this week, along with some thoughts about my recent experience performing Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, a piece which is all about disturbances, musical and otherwise.

You may have already heard about the first concert – a performance of the Brahms Requiem by the St. Louis Symphony which featured a surprise protest of the death of Mike Brown, the young man whose death galvanized Ferguson, Missouri and drew national attention in August. As the second half was about to begin, members of the audience began singing the protest song “Which side are you on friend, which side are you on?” and “Justice for Mike Brown is justice for all,” while unfurling banners and tossing pamphlets from the balcony.

Can’t see the video? Watch it here.

The demonstration was peaceful and over quickly. There was some applause from the audience and some of the performers on stage, as well as some boos. The protestors then left the hall, and the performance continued.

There’s so much to talk about here – I’m not going to discuss the reason the protestors were there, though. Whatever one thinks about Mike Brown, what happened to him and what followed in Ferguson is not really the point here, though it is without question an important topic – for this forum, I’m interested in the protest itself – its form, and its setting.

Much ink has already been spilled about whether the protest was “appropriate” – I think it was. The performance was not underway, so the music wasn’t disturbed. The singing of the protestors was quite good – clearly, they had practiced. And most important, I think – these folks were protesting a death by singing at a performance of a requiem!

“When we discovered that Brahms’ ‘Requiem’ would be on the calendar, for Mike Brown, it was a beautiful connection that seemed fated,” protest organizer Sarah Griesbach told a local TV station. “A requiem is a song for the dead.”

So the protestors knew their audience and the setting, found the right moment and prepared accordingly. They knew just how far they could go, too – had they actually interrupted the performance or confronted anyone directly, I suspect that very few people would have supported their actions.

I wonder about the protestors’ decision to leave the hall after singing – I think they missed a chance to connect with those they were trying to reach. St. Louis Symphony publicist Erika Ebsworth-Goold puts it well: “Brahms’ ‘Requiem’ was a beautiful piece that was written to really console the people who were left behind during a loss,” Ebsworth-Goold told the TV station. “I think if they would’ve stayed, it would have been healing and cathartic for them.”

Maybe the protestors didn’t want to be asked to leave – surely that would have made more of an incident than they wanted, and undercut the message they hoped to send. There may have been some in the audience who thought they should have been ejected, though I’m not sure that would have happened, and surely would have looked pretty bad. Still, part of me wonders what kinds of conversations might have followed the Brahms had they stayed to hear the rest.

The concert hall is seen as a place of refuge by many in the audience – going to a performance is a chance to escape the world’s unpleasant realities. Though I certainly understand the feeling, I’m not sure this always is a good thing. For those of us who play it, great music feels like life and death – if our audience is not engaged on that level, we’re not doing our jobs, and they are missing out. Classical music’s being completely walled off from the world as a whole does no one any favors, in my opinion.

In St. Louis, the protestors may have helped remind the rest of the audience (and the performers) what the point of Brahms’ Requiem is, and what the goal of any performance should be – to connect with people on the deepest level possible.

So what do you think of all this? Were the protestors in St. Louis right to interject a performance of their own? Was Brahms harmed, or enhanced? Did the audience have a right to a protest-free evening, or is the concert hall a place where real life can intrude? I’m not sure there are easy answers to any of these questions, but they’re worth wrestling with! Please post your comments!

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