Last month I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to attend Gateways Music Festival in Rochester, New York. Now in its 24th year, Gateways connects and supports professional classical musicians of African descent, and brings more than 50 solo, chamber, and orchestral performances to the Rochester community during the week of the festival. This was my first time attending a Gateways festival, and I was excited to witness several of the performances, meet friends and colleagues from around the country (and beyond), and make new ones.
Gateways Music Festival was founded in 1993 by Armenta Adams Hummings Dumisani in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her goal was “to open the gates to classical music for musicians and audiences alike so that as many people as possible could play, see and hear the music”. All Gateways Music Festival performances are free and open to the public.
A native of Cleveland, Armenta attended The Juilliard School in the 1950s, where she earned Bachelor and Master degrees, and went on to enjoy an international career as a concert pianist. She was appointed to the faculty at Eastman School of Music in 1994, and Gateways moved to Rochester in 1995. The festival has been presented by the Rochester community in collaboration with the Eastman School of Music every other year since.
I was honored to meet Armenta after a chamber music performance held in the Rochester City Hall Council Chambers during Gateways. Although she retired in 2009, she was present at most of the events I attended over the course of the weekend I was there. She was remarkably spry and articulate, obviously proud of Gateways, and hopeful for its future.
Pianist Armenta Adams Hummings Dumisani performs J.S. Bach’s The Goldberg Variations, recorded at Kilburn Hall, Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York, 2000.
Gateways is a unique event that encompasses a wide variety of activities, many of which occur simultaneously throughout the Rochester community over the week of the festival. Chamber music performances in particular abound. This year more than 125 musicians attended, and they came from all over the United States – and beyond: one evening, I was lucky to meet the remarkable bassist and founder of Chineke! Orchestra, Chi-chi Nwanoku from the U.K. We met at the hotel bar and discussed the commonalities in our work as well as the challenges we face in our respective communities. Meetings like this, networking, and making friends through the common love of music are primary to Gateways’ mission.
Although I was only there for three days, there were too many highlights for me to mention here, and I may neglect to mention many people by name who made a strong impression on me. Please forgive me! It was heartwarming to spend time with many colleagues I have gotten to know at Sphinx and League conferences over the last couple of years, as well as it was exciting to meet many I did not know previously, or only by reputation.
Most impressive of all were the performances I attended. The Friday evening chamber music performance in the City Council Chambers at Rochester City Hall included an astoundingly beautiful performance of the famous Adagio in G minor by Tomaso Albinoni arranged for double bass quartet by Carolyn Buckley (photo of the performers above). This concert concluded with a moving performance of Antonín Dvořák’s strenuous but beautiful String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 77 featuring Anyango Yarbo-Davenport on first violin. Anyango attended Eastman and is a veteran of many Gateways festivals. Like many other musicians of African descent who do not live in Rochester, continuing to participate in this gathering is a priority – Anyango currently resides in Bogotá, Columbia, where she is Professor of Violin and Chair of the String Department at Juan N. Corpas University.
Saturday morning I attended the dress rehearsal for the festival’s closing concert to be held the next evening. This was one of my favorite experiences of the festival – hearing the superlative Gateways Festival Orchestra under the baton of Michael Morgan rehearse Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. The orchestra sounded terrific and pianist Stewart Goodyear‘s playing was phenomenal. As there were only a few people present in the hall that morning, the experience of hearing these two old favorites in the ornate, 95-year old Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theatre was personal and powerful.
Saturday evening I ate dinner “church supper” style with musicians before another chamber music concert at Hochstein School of Music & Dance, and participated in a lively discussion with several Gateways musicians who are also teachers on the merits and pitfalls of various methodologies for teaching students to read rhythmic notation. Although esoteric subjects like this are fraught with academic tensions, this conversation was especially memorable to me because it stayed cheerful and never veered into an argument!
The concert that followed was a grand survey of chamber works for a wide variety of ensembles including brass choir, eight-hand piano duo, percussion ensemble, and more. Memorable performances included Poulenc’s hair-raising Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet with Terrence Wilson at the piano, Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, and Records from a Vanishing City for chamber orchestra by Jessie Montgomery, a moody work originally commissioned by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra that included atmospheric moments reminiscent of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and of Miles Davis’ classic 1950s quintet, evoked by the use of a Harmon mute and terse, spare writing for trumpet. Several friends and colleagues played in these ensembles, including a couple of musicians with Music City connections: Nashville-based bassoonist Maya Stone (who pointed out the Coltrane reference to me after the concert) and Titus Underwood, who played first oboe on the Dvořák, and who joins the Nashville Symphony as Acting Principal Oboe for the 2017-18 season.
All week long Gateways musicians had performed chamber music at venues throughout the Rochester community, and on Sunday morning they dispersed to 23 area churches where they performed chamber works as part of religious observances before gathering back at Eastman for the final concert of the festival that afternoon. Spirits were high in Kodak Hall and the orchestra gave a rousing opening performance of Adolphus Hailstork’s An American Port of Call before settling in to majestic readings of the Rachmaninoff & Brahms. I spent an hour or more backstage and in the lobbies after the concert saying goodbyes and congratulating jubilant musicians.
My first Gateways Music Festival was a wonderful experience – I am looking forward to the next one!