November 25, 2016
Lee Koonce has a vision. “We need a million black and Latino kids playing the violin,” he says. “And another million playing the cello. Two million, even.”
Koonce is the first person to hold a paid position with the Gateways Music Festival, its main goal being to support black classical musicians. The Eastman School of Music Dean Jamal Rossi, the University of Rochester and Gateways itself teamed up to create the new position.
“I think the miracle of the festival is it’s been operated by this extraordinary cast of volunteers, 30 to 40 de facto staff people,” Koonce says. “The miracle of Gateways is it has been able to thrive and survive.”
Since taking over as president and artistic director on July 1, Koonce has already resolved one issue with the nationwide festival, which the Eastman School of Music has played host to since 1997. As a once-every-two-years event, it was too easy for it to slip off of the radar. But with next summer’s festival, Aug. 8 through 13, Gateways becomes a yearly event.
“So much momentum is lost if you take a year off,” Koonce says.
The Gateways Music Festival, which debuted 23 years ago in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a weeklong conference of talks, performances and networking. In 2015, the event drew 125 musicians, including “20 from major symphonic orchestras around the country, faculty members from conservatories or music schools, freelancers,” Koonce says.
Since 1997, he’s been one of the volunteers keeping Gateways going. Originally from Chicago, Koonce himself is a pianist, having earned his master's at the Eastman School of Music while here from 1986 through ’88. He’s held positions in New York City as executive director of Ballet Hispanico and Third Street Music School Settlement. Before that, he was director of community relations at the Chicago Symphony.
Koonce confesses his own playing has lapsed over the past three or four years as the business end of the music took over. He’s been exploring the possibility of returning to performing with some Rochester musicians, perhaps playing in a trio format. But he’ll still split his week between Rochester and New York City. “A large part of my job is fundraising,” he says, and the change is jingling on the pockets of Manhattan’s elites.
Strategic planning for the Gateways of the future is underway. “It’s clear to all of us that Gateways needs to and wants to have a presence in Rochester 12 months out of the year,” Koonce says. “How that takes shape, I’m not sure.”
Perhaps through a permanent ensemble playing shows in Rochester, he speculates. Or more involvement in the public schools. And, “How do we increase our national presence?” Koonce wonders.
Not only how does Gateways increase its national presence, but how do black classical musicians do it? Koonce cites statistics from the League of American Orchestras that says 1.7 percent of classical musicians are of African descent.
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Thanks so much, Bill. You're amazing! All best wishes, Lee [Lee Koonce]