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Gateways festival moving to the fall, hitting the road

Feb 17, 2020

The Gateways Music Festival is dragging classical music into the 21st century. 

On Monday, organizers of the event designed to create exposure for classical musicians of black or African descent will announce three significant changes to the 26-year-old festival.

This year, it moves from its August slot of recent years to an Oct. 13 through Oct. 17 run. It will now be an annual event, rather than once every two years. And starting in 2021, the festival, of which the Eastman School of Music is a partner, will hit the road for portions of the event.

Lee Koonce, the festival's president and director, explains Gateways on the Road.

"You know how you see, on anything you buy these days, where it was made?" he asks. "So we're made in Rochester, but we do want to take this product and share it with the rest of the country."

Lee Koonce is president and director of the Gateways Music Festival.
Credit Provided

Koonce calls the 2019 Gateways Music Festival the event's largest ever. This fall's schedule will be scaled back a bit. It will be chamber-music oriented, with concerts, panel discussions, a guest artist recital by Imani Winds, films and a gala party fundraiser scattered throughout Rochester venues such as Hatch Recital Hall, Kilbourn Hall, Hochstein Performance Hall and The Little Theatre.

Then for 2021, the Gateways Music Festival will be positioned to return to a full schedule, with a symphony orchestra performance as the principal event.

"Our mission is not about diversity or anything like that," Koonce says. "Our mission is about supporting the current existing professional classical musicians of African descent. And if that leads toward diversity, which it certainly could, that's terrific, that's great."

So when the Gateways musicians board the bus, the destination will be areas with a dearth of black classical musicians?

"Well, that would be every city in the country," Koonce says. "I think the important thing is the country needs to see black professional classical musicians. Whether the audiences are white or Asian or Latino or black or whatever, the country needs to see that. 

"And we also think that young children, black children in particular, need to see that because, they just don't. And so, if you're a middle schooler learning how to play the violin, and you see somebody on stage who looks like you and has a major position at a major symphony orchestra, then you think, waitaminute, I can do that too. So we feel that the Gateways musicians need to be seen throughout the entire country, because there is a great need."

Koonce notes that only 1.8 percent of the players in United States symphony orchestras identify as being black or of African descent.

"There was a time in the United States, almost everywhere, where there were strong public school music programs, in almost every city in the country. And Rochester had one of the best in the world, people would come to Rochester and take notes on the incredible music system, public school music system, that Rochester had."

Among those taking notes, Koonce says, was Shinichi Suzuki, who created the Suzuki method of teaching the playing of classical instruments to children.

The 2020 Gateways Music Festival will be scaled back a bit from the event held last year.
Credit Jeanne Fisher/WXXI

But by the 1970s, what Koonce calls "the pool, the pathway or the pipeline" was shutting down.

"As those programs have decreased over the years, there are fewer and fewer black children getting access to musical instruments through the public schools," Koonce says.

It was a matter of economics. Poorer school districts could not afford classical school programs. And there were other, well-documented barriers.

"Certainly prior to 1965, even the '70s, there were orchestras that would not accept a black player," Koonce says. "Especially in the South, they would not hire a black player. I think the same was true of orchestras around the country, so it's not been that long ago that people of African descent were excluded from being full members of American symphony orchestras."

Before coming to Rochester, where he splits his time with New York City, Koonce lived in Chicago, where the symphony orchestra did not hire its first black musician until 2002.

"There are some out there now," he says, "major orchestras that have never had a black player."

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.