Sunday, November 1, 2020 Gateways Music Festival opens Nov. 9 with multiple nights of virtual events

Violinist Jessica "Lady Jess" McJunkins will participate in a Black Lives Matter and Classical Music panel discussion on Nov. 11 as part of the 2020 Gateways Music Festival (Zach Hyman)

Lee Koonce, the new head of Gateways Music Festival

Caurie Putnam
Special to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle USA TODAY NETWORK

Oct 30, 2020

For Isrea Butler, the venerable Gateways Music Festival is like coming home.

“I get to come back to my alma mater, see new friends, make new ones and perform music at a high level,” said Butler, a trombonist and chair of the department of music at North Carolina Central University. For two decades, Butler has participated in Gateways, which connects and supports professional classical musicians of African descent.

Butler’s homecoming, however, will not be in person this year. In August, festival organizers made the decision to hold this year’s event – from Nov.  9 to 13 – completely virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Trombonist Isrea Butler
(Adam Fenster)

“Although it’s going to be different, it’s going to be a really exciting festival,” said Lee Koonce, president and artistic director of the festival.  “The musicians are excited. They have a lot to say right now and it’s going to be important.”

Notable changes

Before the pandemic prompted a shift to a virtual platform this year, two other significant changes occurred. In January 2020, it was announced Gateways would return to its roots as a fall festival instead of summer.

“A significant part of the festival moving to fall was to connect with more students in public schools,” Koonce said. 

And In December 2019, the festival’s board approved Gateways’ change from a biennial event to annual. To ease into the change, festival organizers decided that 2020 would be a more intimate chamber music festival, instead of a larger, orchestral one.

This move, which was made pre-pandemic, proved helpful to Gateways when the decision was made to move the festival online this year. Instead of having to shift programming and logistics for over 100 professional musicians, the chamber music approach involved only about 25.


"It felt like I was finally being accepted”

Gateways was founded in 1993 by concert pianist and now-retired Eastman School of Music associate professor Armenta Hummings Dumisani. It became formally associated with its longtime sponsor, the Eastman School of Music, in 2016.

Dumisani recruited Butler to perform in the festival when he was a freshman at Eastman in 2001, and it has played an important role in his life ever since. 

“Growing up, playing classical music, sometimes I was the only Black musician in an orchestra and even in some Jazz ensembles,” Butler said. “The first time I played in an all-Black orchestra was at Gateways and it felt like I was finally being accepted.”


Tickets and Accessibility

Many Gateways events are free, including the Paul J. Burgett Memorial Lecture Series. Named in memory of Gateways’ late board chair, the series features talks, panel discussions and facilitated conversations on topics including Black Lives Matter and Classical Music and Black Women and 19th Amendment.

All festival events, whether free or paid, require advance registration via the festival’s website Single tickets or festival passes are available in a variety of options.

Additionally, the festival remains committed to access for all and offers free tickets upon request to anyone unable to purchase a ticket (there is a limit of two free tickets). To request free tickets, email or call at (585) 274-1127.

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