Thoughts and Prayers

On Sunday, June 12, a lone gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and slaughtered 49 people, injuring 53 others.  This marks the most fatal mass shooting by a single assailant in U.S. history (though even deadlier massacres against civilians have haunted this nation’s past).

The club was hosting “Latin Night” and spotlighting trans performers, so the shooting explicitly targeted not only the already-marginalized LGBTQ community, but also a marginalized ethnic community.  Though the media has been frenziedly touting “radical Islam” as the shooter’s motive, there is no denying that the primary force that drove this tragedy — this invasion of a safe space for a community already disproportionately vulnerable to violence, homelessness, and suicide — was, above all, homophobia.

I’m heteroromantic, white, and cisgender, so I won’t use this platform to co-opt the LGBTQ and Latinx communities’ grief.  That’s not what this post is about.  Instead, I’m here to talk about classical music.

Remember the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last October?  Probably not, because it’s been overshadowed by the 200+ acts of mass gun violence that have taken place in the U.S. since then (Orlando included).  Regardless — back in October, Hartford-based classical music critic Steve Metcalf published an article entitled “Imagine Classical Music and Gun Control: It Isn’t Hard to Do,” which he later adapted as a radio piece following December’s attack in San Bernardino.

In the article, Metcalf talks about the trope of “thoughts and prayers,” words that are often expressed sincerely yet empty of intent or ability to take action:

I was struck this time by how many people, including President Barack Obama, made the point that they were so very weary of conveying their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims’ families and friends.  The phrase is sincerely offered, of course, but increasingly seems inadequate to the task, particularly when we’re called upon to use it so often.

Metcalf then points to the classical music world’s equivalent of the “thoughts and prayers” paradigm — the famous quote by Leonard Bernstein, noted pacifist and champion of civil rights, penned following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963:

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

The Bernstein quote has been widely circulated on my social media feeds ever since Sunday.  The Orlando Philharmonic even posted it on their Facebook page.  And I’m no less guilty, having shared it on Tumblr last night.  As Metcalf writes, “It has become the classical music world’s automatic, default response.”

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Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers #2: A human requiem

This is the second in a series of posts about the intersection of music and society, in support of The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights.  Last week, we learned about Karim Wasfi, the cellist and Iraqi National Symphony director whose impromptu performances at Baghdad bombsites bring beauty and equilibrium to a war-torn community.

This week’s installation of Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers takes us closer to home — to St. Louis and Baltimore, two American cities marred by systemic racism.  The deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, two young African-American men, at the hands of white law enforcement sparked controversy, riots, protests, and much-needed dialogue.  And some of that dialogue took place in an unexpected setting: the concert hall.

On October 4, 2014, the St. Louis Symphony gave a performance of Brahms‘ Requiem — and there’s some symbolism hidden in that repertoire.  A requiem is a type of Catholic Mass — a Missa pro defunctis, “Mass for the dead.”  The full title of Brahms’ work is Ein deutsches Requiem — “A German Requiem” — with text sung not in the elite, inaccessible Latin language of the liturgy, but in the German vernacular of the people.  Moreover, Brahms omitted many references to God and general Christian dogma, resulting in a piece that is mournful and spiritual regardless of religious persuasion.  Speaking with the music director of the cathedral where the Requiem had its 1868 premiere, Brahms stated that the work could just as fittingly be titled, Ein menschliches Requiem — “A Human Requiem.”

During intermission, twenty-three protesters seated throughout St. Louis’ Powell Symphony Hall stood one at a time and began to sing their own requiem — a Requiem for Mike Brown:

Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all.
Which side are you on, friend?  Which side are you on?

Many headlines billed the protest as an unwanted disturbance, with protesters “interrupting” and “disrupting” the concert.  But the audience’s — and orchestra’s — reception of the protest surprised even the protesters themselves: rather than being escorted out by security, they were met with applause and reverent, listening ears.  “It went to show that there are people among that crowd who think that the protests matter and that it’s not okay to just kill black children, and they’d be receptive to hear that message,” Derek Laney of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment told the Washington Post.  “It was a perfect moment.  As we left, people were smiling and reaching out to shake our hands.”

During their requiem, protesters in the hall’s balcony unfurled banners depicting Mike Brown, St. Louis, and the meaning behind their mission.  Thus, the architecture of the concert hall — a space typically reserved for music and not much else — became physically embedded in an artistic and humanistic dimension beyond the auditory.

Laney described the protest as a way to “speak to a segment of the population that has the luxury of being comfortable.”  The luxury of being comfortable — isn’t that striking?  The truth in that assessment is extraordinary — that symphony audiences represent a small yet immensely privileged population (to which I myself belong) that can afford the time and money required to attend symphony concerts; are predisposed by endemic sociogeographic inequity to have the education needed both to appreciate classical music and to earn the aforementioned money required to consume it; and don’t have to worry daily about their sons and daughters being shot by the police.

In another city embroiled in tension and turmoil, over half a year later, the Baltimore Symphony brought music to an audience that perhaps may not have the luxury of being comfortable.  Following the cancellation of two scheduled concerts due to safety concerns in the riot-wracked city — Meyerhoff Symphony Hall being a mere two miles out from the site of some of Baltimore’s more violent outcries — the orchestra announced that it would give a “free concert in support of our community” on April 29, 2015.  The BSO performed outdoors, each musician donating his or her time to create music outside the concert hall — no walls or tickets barring any interested ears.  A post on the BSO’s Facebook page perhaps sums it up best:

“It seems we could all use a little music in our lives right about now.”

Further Reading:

The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights

July 17 | 7:30 pm | Centennial Memorial Temple, New York City, USA