With just under one month to go until their groundbreaking Carnegie Hall season feature on Sunday April 24, the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra, composed entirely of Black musicians, will perform for a capacity audience as tickets for the concert are nearly sold out.
The 7 day Gateways Music Festival, which runs from April 18 to 24, consists of two full orchestra concerts, six chamber music performances, two piano recitals, two film screenings, two lectures, a panel discussion, a Young Musicians Institute, and an “after hours” jam session.
GMF events will take place throughout Rochester, NY and in New York City at prestigious venues such as 92nd Street Y, The Cooper Union, Eastman School of Music, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morgan Library & Museum, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Steinway Hall.
Reknowned conductor Anthony Parnther, Music Director and Conductor for the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra and the Southeast Symphony & Chorus in Los Angeles, will lead the Gateways Orchestra in its concerts in Rochester and New York City.
The festival, which celebrates and affirms musicians of the African diaspora, was created in Winston-Salem, NC, by noted classical concert pianist and educator Armenta Hummings Dumisani. The festival relocated to Rochester, New York in 1995 when Dumisani became an Associate Professor at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.
Because many symphonies and cities in the U.S., like Rochester, have few Black classical musicians in residence, President & Artistic Director Lee Koonce says GMF recruits Black musicians from all over the country and internationally as well, to make up the 125 member GMF orchestra.
Koonce says in only a few short years, the GMF audience has grown exponentially. In 2019 the Festival had a combined audience of 10,000 in attendance over several days at its events in Rochester. GMF repertoire consists in large part of music by composers of the African diaspora.
However, according to Koonce, initially the festival was focused on performing larger works by a traditional white, European, Western classical music tradition. But in 2019, GMF musicians coalesced around a declaration, saying they wanted to play pieces by composers of African descent to represent more of “the programmatic real estate” and to have “pride of place” in the program, according to Koonce.
“It was a fascinating kind of awakening. Furthermore, the musicians said ‘We’re playing that music all the time, right? We come to Gateways to do something different,’” he says.
GMF makes clear their mission to feature the contributions of Black composers on their website stating:
“In addition to inspiring musicians and audiences, Gateways affirms the important role people of African descent have played in classical music for centuries. Performers, composers, arrangers, historians and organizations – like the National Association of Negro Musicians founded 100 years ago in response to their exclusion from most concert stages ‒ are featured in Gateways performances and events to create a more complete and accurate picture of classical music in and beyond the United States. In this way we are able to change the perceptions of audience members, especially those who believe that a lack of racial diversity is evidence of an absence of talent, interest or inclination, and those who, for the first time, can imagine themselves occupying a music-making space once thought to be restricted, exclusive or out of reach.”
Koonce says in the future, GMF plans to expand into a touring festival with hopes to perform in other major U.S. cities. The importance of having audiences experience the festival in person cannot be understated, he says. “It’s critical, it’s crucial, it’s vital, it’s important.”
In addition, he says he’s impressed by the welcome GMF has received in NYC this year.
“It’s been such a rewarding experience to bring the festival to a city like New York, and get the kind of reception we are getting, even before we’ve arrived.”