Gateways Music Festival celebrates African-American classical musicians

12:23 PM, Aug 11, 2013

Juilliard student Khari Joyner played for President Obama. Provided by

Written By Catherine Roberts | Lead Local Editor/Life

It’s no secret that the classical music community — both audience and musicians — needs to be more diverse.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and other groups in town all have more diversity as a goal.

That’s why Gateways Music Festival being in Rochester can help, says Barbara Jones, co-chair of the planning committee. The festival celebrates African-American composers and musicians.

That is the only downer to having the festival — the fact that we still recognize that there is the large diversity gap,” Jones says. “The flip side of that is the the fact that we can carry that flag and we get the word out.”

And because cost and location are traditional barriers, Gateways is committed to keeping its concerts free, Jones says.

The festival also is committed to bringing music to less intimidating venues for people. While Sunday’s big orchestral concert is at Eastman Hall, chamber music concerts are at Hochstein Performance Hall and houses of worship.

We like to say, ‘Wherever you go, Gateways will be there,’ ” Jones says.

And the lineup is impressive. The largest number of African-American musicians yet — nearly 90 — will assemble for the festival’s 20th year.

Grammy winner and pianist Terrence Wilson, who has been a guest performer with the RPO, will be the featured performer in the 4 p.m. next Sunday orchestral concert at Eastman Theatre, 26 Gibbs St.

Two young cellists who have played for President Barack Obama will be part of the festivities as well.

Featured at a ticketed, private reception on Wednesday will be Khari Joyner, who is in an accelerated program at Juilliard. He received his bachelor’s degree in May and will receive his master’s in 2014. In February, he played his cello in the Oval Office. Joyner, who suffers from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, had made a request through Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the White House granted it.

The public concerts and events happen Thursday through next Sunday.

At 5:30 p.m. Friday will be a concert at City Hall Atrium, 30 Church St., featuring young musicians. Among the performers will be phenom Sujari Britt, a 12-year-old who started receiving attention for her cello playing at age 5. In 2009, she played in a White House concert.

Joyner and Britt come from musical families and will be playing in trios with their siblings.

A special family connection will be highlighted at the 5:30 p.m. Thursday concert at Mt. Olivet Church, 141 Adams St. George Walker, an Eastman School of Music alumnus and the first living African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, surprised his son a few years ago by sending him a violin sonata that he had written specifically for violinist Gregory Walker. The younger Walker will play that sonata.

Many believe that the influence of black musicians and composers on classical music was relatively recent. However, Jones says there’s evidence of African influences all the way back in the 1600s and 1700s.

A multimedia presentation outlining the history of Africans and African-Americans in the classical world will be led at 2 p.m. Saturday at Hochstein Performance Hall, 50 N. Plymouth St., by Paul Burgett, vice president and assistant to the president and dean of students at the University of Rochester. Burgett, a trained musician, also teaches at UR and once headed the Hochstein school.

At 6 p.m. Saturday Hochstein will host another chamber concert.

Then Sunday morning, the 90 musicians will fan out to churches all over Rochester, some traditional African-American denominations, some Catholic, some predominantly white. Temple Beth-el also will be hosting a group.

The festival’s commitment to keeping the concerts free means the organization has not yet raised the money to cover all of the musician costs. Donations will be taken at each of the concerts, as in years past, to make up the difference.

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