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Concert For Peace And Unity Stands With Normandy High

The Normandy High School Chorale performing in February 2014.
Tim Lloyd |File Photo | St. Louis Public Radio

We confront trouble in various ways, and the most destructive of them and wasteful of them is violence. Certainly, tragically, the death of Michael Brown Jr. on Aug. 9 in Ferguson was a mean-streets example of the most malevolent sort of violence, a violence that generates an expanding circle of suffering, one affecting exponentially the lives of a huge and diverse population.

Public demonstrations, some which spun into violence of other sorts themselves, have made their mark and have exacted their tolls. But there also have been services of healing, formal and informal, in which answers have been sought in religious beliefs and in expressions of faith. Discussions such as those at the meeting on the Tuesday evening after the shooting at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant brought forth stories many of us found incomprehensible in their cruelty.

One hopes we can learn from them. Articulate, concerned voices have sat down together in community conversations, such as the one St. Louis Public Radio sponsored, featuring NPR commentator Michel Martin. This meeting has been heard around the country and its effect was powerful. Understanding comes from hearing the ideas and feelings of others, and establishes common ground and, one hopes, initiates growth and change.

A role for art

Another quality found on the way to understanding and in various searches for peace is art, particularly music. Realizing this, St. Louis soul singer Brian Owens organized a concert called “#Heal Ferguson,” presented Sept. 7. Be it soul, rap, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, the blues, bluegrass, show tunes, art songs or opera – all have either been heard or will be.

Soon after the shooting, a group of leaders of concerned arts organizations came together to organize a musical response to the death of Michael Brown. The concert’s organizers are the Normandy Schools Collaborative, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Jazz St. Louis, the Sheldon Concert Hall, Urban League Young Professionals-St. Louis, Arts & Faith St. Louis and St. Louis Public Radio.

The concert they’ve planned will be at 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 28, in Viking Hall at Normandy High School, the school from which Michael Brown Jr. graduated in June.

In that auditorium, a group of musicians of extraordinary accomplishment and celebrity will sing from various repertories, especially spirituals and familiar favorites from the Great American Songbook. The show is called “#WithNormandy, A Concert for Peace & Unity” and it’s free and open to the public. The intention is to provide music for old and young, as many tastes as possible.

Timothy O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis, are two of the prime movers in putting the show together, and their responsibilities include bringing the musical stars to the Viking Hall.

The motivation?

Bradford said his reaction, watching the events unfold in Ferguson, was to ask, “What can we do?” He realized that art has the power to bring people and ideas and hopes together. “And so the concert was born.”

He hopes the effect of it will be lasting. “It would be a shame if it weren’t,” he said. “We want to leave a legacy, a benefit to the community.”

Denyce Graves in "Champion," a joint production of Opera Theater of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis in 2013
Credit Ken Howard | OTSL
Denyce Graves in Champion, a joint production of Opera Theater of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis in 2013

Bradford’s colleague O’Leary said, “Music creates an intense, shared emotional experience. Our goal is to draw a diverse crowd together to partake in something beautiful and hopeful, and above all to support the students of Normandy High School. At a time of such trauma for our whole community, it is especially important that we support our young people.”  

Two of the most luminous stars recruited by the organizers are mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and soprano Christine Brewer – both of whom have a long and brilliant history with Opera Theatre of St. Louis and both of whom enjoy international careers. Brewer lives in Lebanon, Ill., but the St. Louis region claims her as its own. Graves has appeared here regularly, most recently as the sassy Emelda Griffith in Terence Blanchard’s remarkable “opera in jazz” called “Champion,” a work commissioned jointly by Jazz St. Louis and Opera Theatre.

Area alums

These superstars will perform with the Normandy High School Choir, an ensemble that has star quality of its own, having played Carnegie Hall in New York City.  

Duane Foster, the St. Louis Arts and Education Council’s 2013 Arts Educator of the Year, is the choir’s conductor, and he extended the invitation to present the concert at Normandy High. Foster made a name for himself singing on Broadway, and appeared in the original production of “Ragtime.” He returned home to teach and to conduct the choir at his alma mater. His students make frequent appearances with Opera Theatre's Monsanto Artists-in-Training (AIT) program.  

AIT alums will make additional contributions to the program on Sept. 28. For example, Julia Bullock, a graduate of John Burroughs School, has received laudatory reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post for her operatic performances. In February, she will sing the title role in Henry Purcell’s “The Indian Queen” with the English National Opera in London. Jermaine Smith just may be the 21st -century owner of the role of Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess.” His home base is Ferguson.

Derrell Acon was an Opera Theatre Gerdine Young Artist last season. Following it, he spent a Fulbright fellowship year in Rome and is completing his master’s in vocal performance at Cincinnati Conservatory. Jennifer Sheehan, a Kirkwood High graduate, studied at Juilliard, and from time to time you can find her singing at Carnegie Hall and at the Cafe Carlyle. 

Doors to Viking Hall will open at 4 p.m. and seating will be first-come, first-served. The 800-seat auditorium at Normandy High School is at 6701 St. Charles Rock Road. For additional information, go to www.opera-stl.org/withnormandy.

In celebrating the noble aims of unity and peace, the concert also supports the Friends of Normandy School District Foundation, and audience members can support the Friends at the concert with contributions, which are tax deductible.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.