© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: A Musical Expression Of Hope In Normandy

Denyce Graves at Normandy High School
Opera Theater of St. Louis

Remember the big flood of 1993, and how it seemed eternal?

Remember how it felt to hear – just when it seemed the worst was over – that 51 propane tanks, each containing 30,000 gallons of gas, were floating in the river, only loosely attached to their moorings south of the city? A spark, we were told, could set off a massive explosion. Approximately 9,000 people were evacuated from their homes and business.

The explosion didn’t happen, but the fears the vulnerable tanks gave life to and the muddy, smelly residues of the flood in streets and yards and houses would remain for months before our eyes, and then for years in dark and frightening places in our minds.

The multiple tragedies of Ferguson in the post-Michael Brown world remind one of the enduring effects of the ’93 flood. Like that flood, in part a result of careless and greedy human-initiated development of one sort of another along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the causes of violence and bitterness and frustration and dislocations are the results of not listening to the quite legitimate complaints of African-American citizens, not only in Ferguson but in communities all over this great and wealthy nation of ours.

The wages of sin, now as before, are ours to reckon with. Like the mud and ruined houses and sodden and destroyed possessions, the evidence is not going away anytime soon. Pistol shots have set off serial explosions. Because of that reality, we search our hearts and souls for the ineffable, for some reasonable way to effect change, and along with it, to find redemption. Some march, some holler and some throw things, or bring food, or pray or search for gestures of good will in the hope of healing.

And it came to pass a few days after Michael Brown was killed, four people – three men, one woman, two Jews, one Catholic, one Episcopalian, all quite white – piled into a Prius and headed for an assembly at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant. On the way, they talked about pouring oil on troubled waters, finding a way to address, and perhaps to defuse in some small way, a situation that certainly was not over and probably would continue to spool out for a long, long time.

Robert W. Duffy was one of the organizers of the WithNormandy concert.

As they continued to drive from predominately white and frightened America into a world that is predominately black and angry, they discussed philosophies and options. At the overflowing church, they were given a strong dose of reality as they listened to African Americans’ passionate testimonies of psychologically cruel and physically brutal treatment. First hand, they learned what sends men and women into the streets.

As they drove home, the obvious occurred to them. In the backs of their minds they knew where one answer could be found, and that was in a place all stand now or have stood before, and that was before a music stand. There are pages and pages of material on the stand, and more on the bookshelves, but as grand as the libraries of music may be, nowhere do the notes on the pages provide literal answers. What is provided, and available, is hope -- hope produced by sounds and rhythms that since the earliest days of prehistory have affected us. Although the sounds may flee our immediate consciousness they haunt and elevate our souls, probably forever.

As time passed in the days of late summer, others joined this foursome – all men and women of good will, a group representative of our nation, all ready to leave differences at the door and to bring ideas and senses of possibility to the table.  

In contemporary culture we talk a lot about conversations that are just that, a lot of hot air and circular talk. The conversations of value are those that set the feet to marching, conversations that genuinely initiate action and forward motion. And so out of that initial ride to Florissant just after the shooting, there came to be on Sunday (Sept. 28, 2014) a resplendent 90-minutes of music, a concert mounted in the generous spaces of the beautiful Viking Hall on the extraordinary campus of Normandy High School on St. Charles Rock Road.

There were many, many people on the program, and there’s a website below that will tell you who they were. In so many ways it was a distinguished group and to see them standing together at the finale was enough to make one weep in thanksgiving.

At least one person on stage has made music for crowned heads in Europe; many of the bright lights have appeared on professional stages all over the world in starring roles. Others, who brought their own special magic and musical dedication, sing praises in the choir lofts of churches and raise the roofs of high school auditoriums. Some sing in amateur choruses; one is a star in a tony cabarets.  

At Normandy High School on Sunday, who-sings-what-and-where distinctions vanished and an enthusiastic audience that defined diversity itself – men and women and children of all races, representing various ethnicities and religions – sang “Amazing Grace,” clapped, cried and cheered and shouted bravo! On stage and in the audience, you got the idea that singers, accompanists and an almost full house of listeners had merged into one big familial ensemble, standing and sitting together, with peace and unity  very much on their minds and in their hearts.

The performers at the end of the With Normandy concert.
Credit Opera Theater of St. Louis
The performers at the end of the With Normandy concert.

About #WithNormandy



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.