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Gateways Music Festival makes debuts in D.C. & Chicago

Gateways Brass Collective (Photo Credit Adam Fenster)

Week of Events Concludes with Full Orchestral Concert Featuring Anthony Parnther & Take 6

The Gateways Music Festival in association with Eastman School of Music continues its milestone 30th anniversary celebrations with two major debuts: at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with a chamber program featuring special guest narrator Phylicia Rashad (Feb 13), and in Chicago, with a weeklong spring residency (April 15–19) bookended by a reprise of the D.C. program and a full orchestral concert led by Anthony Parnther and featuring vocal sextet Take 6. Representing the second half of its expanded 2023-24 season, these landmark firsts highlight Gateways’ success in rewriting the classical music narrative by connecting and supporting professional classical musicians of African descent, while enlightening and inspiring audiences through the power of performance.

 The D.C. and Chicago debuts build on Gateways’ achievements in New York last fall. After launching in Rochester, the festival came to New York City for four days of events, crowned by the Gateways Chamber Players’ sold-out Carnegie Hall debut at Zankel Hall, where the New York Times found their program “characteristic of a festival that has consistently emphasized the contributions of Black composers.” Citing the “camaraderie and visibility” Gateways promotes, the New York Times noted “the festival’s transformative power.” Small wonder that outgoing Gateways President & Artistic Director Lee Koonce was named among Musical America’s “Top 30 Professionals” of 2023; as the magazine observed, Koonce has helped “ensure the health of the artform and its essential value in our lives, now and for generations to come.”

Koonce is now succeeded by Alexander Laing, who inaugurated his appointment as Gateways’ incoming President & Artistic Director at the beginning of January. Himself named one of Musical America’s “30 Movers and Shapers” of 2017, Laing says:

“At the Gateways Music Festival in New York last fall, we saw great success – full houses, a live broadcast (still available for streaming) and vibrant music that spoke to many. Heading to Chicago for our spring festival and debut at Orchestra Hall with Take 6 is something special. It is so fitting to be able to pay tribute to Lee Koonce and his incredible leadership of Gateways in his hometown. For me personally, as a Northwestern grad and alum of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, there is a special resonance. It’s both a homecoming and the start of a new journey, and we can’t wait to share it with our many dear friends. My experience with Gateways spans from being an artist, deeply involved in creating Black classical music, to recognizing it as a transformative community. I want to help more people know Gateways the way I do.”

Debuts in D.C. (Feb 13) and Chicago (April 15)

When the recently formed Gateways Chamber Players made their sold-out first appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall earlier this season, it was with a pairing of The Soldier’s Tale Suite by Igor Stravinsky and A Fiddler’s Tale by Wynton Marsalis. Now this same program is the vehicle for Gateways’ upcoming debuts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (Feb 13) and in Chicago, at Northwestern University (April 15). At these venues, as in New York, both works will feature violinist Tai Murray, a musician of “exceptional assurance and style” (Philadelphia Inquirer), and TV and stage legend Phylicia Rashad will make a special guest appearance as the narrator in A Fiddler’s Tale.

Now in their first season, the Chamber Players represent some of the nation’s leading classical musicians. The spring 2024 roster comprises award-winning conductor Damien Sneed, Imani Winds bassoonist Monica Ellis, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra trumpeter Billy Hunter, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra trombonist Weston Sprott, former Los Angeles Philharmonic percussion fellow Wesley Sumpter, Columbus Symphony double bassist Patricia Weitzel and new Gateways’ President and former Phoenix Symphony clarinetist Alexander Laing.

Gateways Festival Orchestra concert and more in Chicago (April 15–19)

The Chamber Players’ Northwestern concert launches a weeklong spring residency in Chicago. This culminates with a full performance hosted by Symphony Center Presents, the presenting arm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At that ensemble’s home in Orchestra Hall, the Gateways Festival Orchestra will perform under the baton of Anthony Parnther, who previously led its sold-out Carnegie Hall debut in 2022. “A conductor for the future” with “a flourishing career” (New York Times), Parnther recently made debuts with the New York Philharmonic, in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s subscription series, and at London’s BBC Proms. Now he helms the Gateways Festival Orchestra’s accounts of Edward Elgar’s iconic “Enigma” Variations and works by two African American composers with Chicago connections. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, who served as Artistic Director of the Center for Black Music Research at the city’s Columbia College, is represented by his concert overture Worship (2001) and Chicago native Margaret Bonds by her Montgomery Variations (1964). Depicting Black resistance to segregation in the Jim Crow South, Bonds’s programmatic variations are dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. Together with these orchestral works, Gateways’ program features a special set by eight-time Grammy-winning vocal sextet Take 6, whom legendary producer Quincy Jones considers the “baddest vocal cats on the planet.” After the concert, there will be a reception hosted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s African American Network (April 19).

The Gateways Festival Orchestra’s Orchestra Hall debut concludes a full week of events in Chicago. “Virtuoso pianist” Artina McCain (New York Times) and Global Music Award-winning bass trombonist Martin McCain curate a program of chamber music at St. Mark United Methodist Church (April 16). The Gateways Brass Collective, the nation’s only all-Black professional brass quintet, blends traditional chamber repertoire with jazz and more in the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert series in downtown Chicago (April 17). Stewart Goodyear, recognized as “one of the best pianists of his generation” (Philadelphia Inquirer), gives a solo piano recital at Northwestern University (April 17). Gateways completes the residency with two events at Chicago’s South Shore Cultural Center: a Paul J. Burgett lecture & community conversation and a chamber concert showcasing Chicago-based musicians of African descent (April 18).

About Gateways Music Festival

The mission of Gateways Music Festival is to connect and support professional classical musicians of African descent and enlighten and inspire communities through the power of performance. Founded in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1993 by noted concert pianist Armenta Hummings Dumisani, the festival was brought to Rochester, New York in 1997 when Hummings Dumisani joined the Eastman School of Music faculty. Approximately 125 musicians – comprising players in major symphony orchestras, faculty from renowned music schools and conservatories, and active freelance artists – participate in each festival. In 2016, while remaining an independent non-profit organization, Gateways formalized its longstanding relationship with Eastman and the University of Rochester. Among other mutual benefits, this deepened relationship provided much of the infrastructure and resources necessary for Gateways to increase its programming capacity, appoint its first paid staff position and broaden its impact in and beyond Rochester, NY. In addition to the annual full-orchestra festival held each spring, other Gateways initiatives include a yearly chamber music festival each fall; the Gateways Showcase, a social media campaign designed to shed light on the extraordinary stories, artistic achievements and indelible impact of Black classical musicians; the Gateways Brass Collective, the only all-Black professional brass quintet in the country; the Gateways Residency, by which renowned Gateways artists are presented nationwide throughout the year in recitals, masterclasses and community- based activities; the Gateways Chamber Players, an all-star touring ensemble featuring some of the nation’s most renowned classical musicians; and, since January 2023, Gateways Radio, a one- hour syndicated radio program featuring Black classical artists on radio stations across the United States.

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