Monday, August 5, 2019 Gateways brings black classical musicians together

Featured musicians at this year’s Gateways Music Festival include (clockwise from top left) Music Director Michael Morgan, conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson, composer Carlos Simon, and violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins.
(Johnson Photo By Vanessa Briceno Photography, All Other Photos Provided)

August 5, 2019 

Attend virtually any orchestral concert in the country, and you’re likely to see a similar picture onstage: a sea of white performers, with very little racial diversity. The perception that classical music is predominantly a Caucasian pursuit has endured for several centuries, but that idea doesn’t reflect the current reality.

The biennial, six-day celebration known as the Gateways Music Festival has brought black classical musicians together since 1993. The festival was founded by pianist and former Eastman School of Music professor Armenta Adams (Hummings) Dumisani. Rochester has hosted the Gateways since 1995, and the 14th iteration of the festival, presented in conjunction with the Eastman School, runs from August 6 through 11.

Led by the festival’s president and artistic director, Lee Koonce, this year’s series of concerts and events will take place at over 50 Rochester-area venues. Over the course of six days, Gateways will feature over 100 American and international musicians. These artists include such conductors as Gateways Music Director Michael Morgan and Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra’s director Jeri Lynne Johnson, instrumentalists such as New York City-based violin soloist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, and Atlanta-born composer Carlos Simon. The festival will close with an August 11 performance at Kodak Hall from high-profile mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra, led by Morgan.

The festival also highlights the historical contributions of important artists whose careers broke new ground for musicians of color in classical music. Differing from previous years, the 2019 festival will focus especially on the works of composer Florence Price, who lived from 1887 to 1953. She wrote in a wide variety of mediums: orchestral works such as symphonies and concertos; chamber music and numerous keyboard pieces; and choral works, arrangements of spirituals, and solo songs. Price stands out for “her fusion of obviously excellent classical training with extended jazz harmony,” Morgan says. Price’s Symphony No. 1 became the first symphony written by a black female composer to be played by a prominent American orchestra in 1933.

Kelly Hall-Tompkins first became acquainted with the music of Florence Price when Hall-Tompkins performed Symphony No. 1 at a previous Gateways. This year, she will be the featured soloist in the August 10 performance of Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, conducted by Jeri Lynne Johnson at Hochstein Performance Hall. “It’s everything that I love about the post-Romantic period, with a definitive American voice,” Hall-Tompkins says of Price. “I find it to be a little bit Richard Strauss, a little bit 1940’s film music, and just a very unique voice that doesn’t exist in any other composer.”

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