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Black musicians perform virtually in 2020

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Caurie Putnam, Special to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle USA TODAY NETWORK
Published 5:01 a.m. ET Oct. 30, 2020

CLOSEBlack musicians perform virtually in 2020

From Aug. 8 to Aug. 13, the 24th celebration of the Gateways Music Festival brought together 125 musicians from across the country. The event spotlights classical artists of African heritage.

For Isrea Butler, the venerable Gateways Music Festival is like coming home.

“I get to come back to my alma mater, see new friends, make new ones and perform music at a high level,” said Butler, a trombonist and chair of the department of music at North Carolina Central University. For two decades, Butler has participated in Gateways, which connects and supports professional classical musicians of African descent.

Butler’s homecoming, however, will not be in person this year. In August, festival organizers made the decision to hold this year’s event – from Nov.  9 to 13 – completely virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Although it’s going to be different, it’s going to be a really exciting festival,” said Lee Koonce, president and artistic director of the festival.  “The musicians are excited. They have a lot to say right now and it’s going to be important.”

Notable changes

Before the pandemic prompted a shift to a virtual platform this year, two other significant changes occurred. In January 2020, it was announced Gateways would return to its roots as a fall festival instead of summer.

“A significant part of the festival moving to fall was to connect with more students in public schools,” Koonce said. 

And In December 2019, the festival’s board approved Gateways’ change from a biennial event to annual. To ease into the change, festival organizers decided that 2020 would be a more intimate chamber music festival, instead of a larger, orchestral one.

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This move, which was made pre-pandemic, proved helpful to Gateways when the decision was made to move the festival online this year. Instead of having to shift programming and logistics for over 100 professional musicians, the chamber music approach involved only about 25.

Instead of a full orchestral performance, the festival’s grand finale this year will feature pre-recorded performances by Traveling through Time, a New York-based string quartet, the Gateways Brass Collective and students from ROCmusic — an El Sistema-inspired music education program that provides tuition-free classical music and instrument instruction to children in under-served communities.

“It felt like I was finally being accepted”

Gateways was founded in 1993 by concert pianist and now-retired Eastman School of Music associate professor Armenta Hummings Dumisani. It became formally associated with its longtime sponsor, the Eastman School of Music, in 2016.

Dumisani recruited Butler to perform in the festival when he was a freshman at Eastman in 2001, and it has played an important role in his life ever since. 

“Growing up, playing classical music, sometimes I was the only Black musician in an orchestra and even in some Jazz ensembles,” Butler said. “The first time I played in an all-Black orchestra was at Gateways and it felt like I was finally being accepted.”

Statistics bear out Butler’s personal experience. A 2016 industry-wide study by the American Symphony Orchestra League found African American musicians make up just 1.8 percent of orchestra members nationwide.

Inspiring young people

To help address this inequity, Gateways in 2017 started a Young Musicians Institute, a week-long residency during the festival for youth instrumentalists from ROCmusic to interact and perform with professional Gateways musicians.

“We coach these students, let them get to know us and inspire them,” said Butler, who is also a member of the Gateways Brass Collective, along with musicians Eric Davis, Richard White, Courtney Jones and Herb Smith. “The reason our group was created was so students of color would see musicians of color perform classical music of the highest level.”

Highlights of this year’s institute, which will also be conducted virtually, include an educational series by violinist Rachel Barton Pines called Music by Black Composers, which will teach students about classical composers of African descent from the 18th through 21st centuries. 

Also, Dr. Sonia James-Wilson, founder and president of ArtID International, will lead Finding My Place in Rochester, a photo-text project that will invite students to explore connections between racial identity and place. Students’ narratives and portraits will be displayed on the festival website.

Festival highlights

  • Gateways kicks off with the opening concert “Celebrating Rochester’s Own” at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9. Professional classical musicians of African descent who are from Rochester will perform, including Smith, George Taylor, Nicole Cabell, Kearstin Piper Brown, Armand Hall, Elena O’Connor and Lee Wright.
  • Guest artists for this year’s festival are Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, and Thapelo Masita, a South African-born cellist and graduate of Eastman. McGill will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10, and Masita at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11.
  • Throughout the festival, a portal will be available on the Gateways website to access the Memorial Art Gallery’s collection of works by artists of African descent.
  • New to this year’s festival is the debut of Gateways Radio hosted by Garrett McQueen. Accessible via the Gateways website during the festival’s run, Gateways Radio is a daily five-hour program that will feature archived and unreleased performances from past Gateways Music Festivals. 

Tickets and Accessibility

Many Gateways events are free, including the Paul J. Burgett Memorial Lecture Series. Named in memory of Gateways’ late board chair, the series features talks, panel discussions and facilitated conversations on topics including Black Lives Matter and Classical Music and Black Women and 19th Amendment.

All festival events, whether free or paid, require advance registration via the festival’s website gatewaysmusicfestival.org. Single tickets or festival passes are available in a variety of options.

Additionally, the festival remains committed to access for all and offers free tickets upon request to anyone unable to purchase a ticket (there is a limit of two free tickets). To request free tickets, email info@gatewaysmusicfestival.org or call at (585) 274-1127.

Caurie Putnam is a freelance writer for the Democrat and Chronicle.

Read or Share this story: https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/lifestyle/2020/10/30/gateway-music-festival-black-musicians-perform-virtually-2020/3753938001/

 


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