Camaraderie and Visibility: A Festival for Black Classical Musicians

Monica Ellis vividly recalls her first impression of the Gateways Music Festival, a gathering of classical musicians of African descent, at the University of Rochester in upstate New York in 2019. Ellis, a bassoonist and founding member of the quintet Imani Winds, was no stranger to working in exclusively Black groups. But that hadn’t prepared her for playing with an entire orchestra made up of friends and colleagues from across the country.

“When you get to a certain level, everybody’s good,” Ellis said in a video interview. “So that doesn’t strike you as much as this camaraderie — this feeling of unapologetic Blackness.”

She had felt that sensation before, with Imani Winds. “But to have it be an experience of 100 people onstage playing this incredible music, knowing that everybody’s bringing their A-game — it’s a feeling like no other,” she said. “You feel like you’re home.”

With Imani Winds, Ellis performed in the festival’s first concerts in New York City in 2022, which also featured the Carnegie Hall debut of the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra. The festival, now yearly, returns to New York City this week, and Ellis will perform in the grand finale on Sunday at Zankel Hall, playing Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” and Wynton Marsalis’s “A Fiddler’s Tale” with the Gateways Chamber Players and the narrator Phylicia Rashad. The program is characteristic of a festival that has consistently emphasized the contributions of Black composers.

This year’s festival is a milestone: the 30th anniversary of an initiative established in 1993 by Armenta Hummings Dumisani, a Juilliard-trained pianist, in Winston-Salem, N.C. Seeking to increase the visibility of Black artists, Dumisani mounted a three-day symposium, “Gateways: Classical Music and the Black Musician.”

Her mission was rooted in personal experience. In an open letter to Gateways participants in 2015, she recounted challenges she had faced as an aspiring musician from a music-loving family of modest means, and the effort needed to balance her artistic goals with raising four young sons. “The side effect of holding families together,” she wrote, “is not to be minimized.” (Dumisani, 87, is retired from public life and does not give interviews.)

Lee Koonce, the president and artistic director of the Gateways festival since 2016, first became aware of Dumisani while earning an master’s in piano performance at the Eastman School.

“My piano teacher went to school with Armenta back in the ’50s, and she said everybody wanted to play like Armenta,” Koonce said in a Zoom call. “But the same opportunities weren’t available for her, a Black woman of that skill level, that talent.”

The impetus for Gateways, Koonce said, came when Dumisani set out to provide her eldest son, Amadi Azikiwe, now a renowned violist, with opportunities she had been denied. “She said, if I bring together a group of Black musicians at his level and make it into a festival, he will not experience the isolation that I experienced,” Koonce said.

The trumpet player Herbert Smith in a Gateways program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in April 2022.Credit…Neil Ganguli

Since 1995, Gateways has been based at the University of Rochester, whose Eastman School of Music hired Dumisani as an associate professor and community mentor in 1994. The university provided facilities and modest funding, and then strengthened its commitment in 2016, allowing Gateways to hire Koonce as its first full-time staff member and providing resources for outreach and expansion.

The kind of isolation that moved Dumisani to found Gateways remains an important motivation for its leaders. According to a 2023 report on racial, ethnic and gender diversity prepared by the League of American Orchestras, Black musicians account for just 2.4 percent of orchestra members in the United States. (Representation is higher among conductors, at 6.7 percent, and staffers, at 10.8 percent.)

Koonce said that increasing visibility for Black musicians is paramount for Gateways, not only to provide a sense of community for participants, but also to help motivate younger generations. “It’s important for us to have more children say, ‘I can do that,’ because they see somebody who looks like them doing it,” he said.

As the festival’s profile has grown, so too has demand among musicians to take part. Koonce said that some 300 performers from around the world are participating in concerts spread across four cities this season, including in Rochester this week and a Chicago debut for the festival’s orchestra early next year. But more than 200 players were turned away.

And its offerings have increased. In New York this week, programs include the Gateways Brass Collective at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; events inspired by “Chevalier,” the 2023 film based on the life of the 18th-century French-Caribbean composer Joseph Boulogne; and a recital by Clayton Stephenson, a finalist in the 2022 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The festival’s growth has transpired during a time of loss and transformation, not limited to the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide racial protests after the murder of George Floyd. Paul J. Burgett, a popular Rochester professor and administrator who served as chairman of the festival’s board of directors, died in 2018. Michael Morgan, the gifted and charismatic music director who conducted the festival from the start — including a concert in which Louis Farrakhan played Mendelssohn — died in 2021.

Those roles are now occupied by new leaders who bring fresh energy and conviction. Kearstin Piper Brown, a soprano, is chair of the board. Anthony Parnther, a conductor and bassoonist whose credentials extend from the concert stage and opera house to film and video game scores, was appointed the festival’s conductor in 2022.

More change is coming. Plans are underway to take the festival to more cities, including Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston and Los Angeles. And in January, Koonce will hand over the leadership reins to Alex Laing, the principal clarinetist of the Phoenix Symphony, who has been associated with the festival since 2001: first as a participating player and then as an executive.

Like Monica Ellis — alongside whom he’ll play at Zankel Hall on Sunday — Laing attests to the festival’s transformative power. “Isolation can be part and parcel of the artistic path and journey,” he said in a video interview. “What Gateways showed me is that there was another layer of satisfaction, joy and exploration available in the music when I was able to practice it in this environment that was culturally affirming and joy-filled.”

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