Classical music boasts some stellar African-American names: composers Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, and George Walker; singers Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, and William Warfield; and pianist André Watts, not to mention the many black musicians in our symphony orchestras.
For 22 years, Gateways Music Festival's aim has always been the same: to "increase the visibility and viability of classical musicians of African descent and to heighten public awareness of the contributions to classical music by musicians of African descent."
The festival, which has been based in Rochester for the last 20 years — and will take place this year on August 11 through August 16 — is devoted to the achievements and the development of African-American musicians. At each Gateways Festival, young professional and student musicians join forces with established orchestral musicians from the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and many more ensembles.
The festival's schedule covers most of a week and includes daily concerts, panel discussions and forums, and master classes with guest artists: more than 30 events in all this year. This year's guest lineup includes Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, and the Harlem Quartet.
Performance will take place throughout downtown Rochester, from the Hochstein School to City Hall, and culminate on Sunday, August 16, when Gateways musicians will take part in services at 15 local churches during the morning and unite for an orchestral concert at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, with conductor Michael Morgan and McGill as a soloist, in the afternoon. (All events are free; a complete schedule is at gatewaysmusicfestival.org.)
The Gateways Music Festival started in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as the idea of Armenta Adams Hummings, a prominent African-American pianist and music educator. It included orchestra and chamber music performances, an organ recital, and performances by young musicians. When Hummings joined the Eastman School of Music faculty in 1995, Gateways moved with her — and has continued in Rochester every other year, even after Hummings's retirement from Eastman in 2009.
Gateways music director Michael Morgan took part in the initial 1993 festival, and has returned to almost every festival since. A former assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a frequent guest conductor with important American orchestras, Morgan is now music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.
"I met Armenta Adams Hummings in Chicago and was immediately impressed when she had the idea for the festival," Morgan says. "The festival has grown in organization and is now a much more established part of the Rochester musical landscape."
During the 1993 festival, the orchestra, and Morgan, debuted playing short works of Bach and Mozart. Its programs have since included many cornerstones of the standard symphonic repertory, including Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, Tchaikovsky's and Shostakovich's Fifths, and with a community chorus, Beethoven's Ninth.
The Gateways Festival also explores the rich heritage of African-American classical composition in America. For example, in 2013, the orchestra presented the "Negro Folk Symphony" by William Levi Dawson, a major work from 1934 that was championed by Leopold Stokowski.
This year's festival features another prolific African-American composer who has been rediscovered in recent years: Florence B. Price (1887-1953), who was the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. Price wrote four symphonies and many other orchestral, chamber, and vocal works. Her legacy inspires this year's community education forum on black women composers (taking place Saturday, August 15, 5:30 p.m. at Hochstein).
"We are performing Florence Price's First Symphony this year," Morgan says. "Her music is well-crafted and charming, but often is overlooked because there are so few thoughtful, inspired performances of it on record."
Last year, Morgan conducted the RPO in a concert including two movements from Price's Third Symphony, but he adds he's performed many African-American composers "from Price to Michael Abels, to Adolphus Hailstork, to Olly Wilson, to Hale Smith, to William Dawson, to William Grant Still; to name a few. That's a very diverse group." (The RPO premiered Still's Afro-American Symphony — now considered an American classic — in 1931, under Howard Hanson.)
"I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 60's and 70's, and being a black classical musician was like being an alien from another planet," says Lee Koonce, director of Gateways' Artistic Programs Committee. He studied piano at Oberlin and Eastman and is now Executive Director of Ballet Hispanico in New York City. Koonce learned of Gateways "when I was Director of Community Relations for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1997, the Orchestra brought five musicians and Armenta for a mini-residency.
"The Festival's mission spoke to my experience as a classically trained musician of African descent. Most of us grew up playing the music we loved as the only ones of African descent: the only ones in our communities, schools, churches, everywhere. Gateways is powerful because we have all had the same experience, whether in a major symphony orchestra or still in conservatory."
The festival has created a national network of up-and-coming musicians and those more established in their careers, Koonce says. "This is great for the younger musicians and the more experienced ones, too, since they feel they're passing on their knowledge and experience. The festival made me realize how important the sense of community is for all of us."
In the last five years Gateways "has grown and developed exponentially," Koonce says. "This year, we received twice as many applications than we were able to accommodate for the first time in our history; we are attracting many more musicians from major symphony orchestras, and we have been awarded two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for Artistic Excellence."
"The best thing about the festival," Morgan says, "is the camaraderie. We always leave wishing we could take more of the feeling from those rehearsals to other orchestras. It's a supportive and familial atmosphere where some really great music is made."