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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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Features

Opening the Gates

A community-wide festival celebrates classical music and the African-American musician.

By David Raymond

Booker T. Roe The Philadelphia Orchestra's Booker T. Roe: One of 30 solo violinists performing at Sunday morning worship services across the city.

On the last Sunday morning in August, during 30 different worship services across the City of Rochester, a solo violinist rose, put bow to instrument, and began to play one of the supreme achievements of the string repertoire, Bach's "Chaconne" from the Partita in D Minor.

The 30 violinists--all of them black classically trained artists--were the opening performers in Rochester's third Gateways Music Festival, a weeklong, community-wide celebration of classical music and the African-American musician.

Mastermind of that multi-site Sunday-morning recital--as well as of some 20 succeeding events in half a dozen different venues--was the festival's founder, Armenta Adams Hummings.

Associate professor of music performance and community education at the Eastman School of Music, Hummings is a music activist who takes the long view of things. Ask her about the origins of the Gateways Festival, and she answers this way:

It began centuries ago in the human spirit aspiring to the highest level--an honest relationship with the Maker."

It's an aspiration, she declares, that "is artistically expressed in classical music as well or better than in any other form." And through her work with Gateways, she's determined to share it with as many people as she can.

On another level, Hummings founded the festival (in 1993 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) as a way of giving much-needed experience and exposure to black classical musicians. When she joined the Eastman faculty shortly thereafter, she brought the concept with her. The 1999 event was its third iteration in Rochester, sponsored this year by the City of Rochester, the Gleason Foundation, and the Eastman School.

"Gateways is a true asset to the school," says Eastman director Jim Undercofler, who is "particularly pleased," he says, "that the festival has evolved into a community-wide, community-supported event. It's reaching new audiences and opening their eyes to the world of classical music. But Gateways also is providing role models for young African-Americans, building connections among the artists."

Nearly a hundred of those role models gathered in Rochester for Gateways 1999, coming from across the country and at least one of them (mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn from Stuttgart), also from overseas.

Among them were important black artists like Eastman's own William Warfield (Class of 1942), pianist Awadagin Pratt, and conductor Michael Morgan. They were joined by a vast assortment of young musicians in training, aspiring professionals, and seasoned players who, for the better part of a week, performed both in numerous chamber ensembles and with the full Gateways orchestra, reminding audiences of the continuing contributions of black composers and performers to American music.

The work of making all this happen is, no surprise, considerable, and Hummings does much of the nitty-gritty herself. Right down to the wire this year she was dealing with last-minute plane tickets and local lodgings. (And, as if that were not enough, while she was putting the finishing touches on Gateways 1999, she was already beginning to plan Gateways 2000, for staging in Cleveland.)

Gateways is dedicated to people who spend their lives in the art of music. An ideal brings them here," she says, glossing over her own role. "I never, ever feel that I'm the one who's in control. Gateways is not about me." And while she is an accomplished pianist who has concertized throughout America and Europe, the fact that she did not perform during the 1999 festival was intentional.

Also intentional on her part was the opening of the festival on a Sunday morning in the city's churches: "Many of the great composers wrote their great works for the church, so why not take their music back there?"

Hence the multiple performances of the Bach "Chaconne," a work, short-listed among Western musical masterpieces, that probes profound musical and intellectual depths in its 15 minutes. "I chose it for a simple reason," says Hummings. "It is one of the apexes of music, and I believe in offering people nothing but absolutely, positively the best. After all, you may have only one chance to reach them."

Musicians of all ages took part in Gateways, but one of the youngest, in spirit, that is, was surely the 79-year-old host of what was billed as an informal "Evening with William Warfield."

The veteran baritone, so closely associated with the quintessentially American music of Show Boat and Porgy and Bess, delighted an audience that joined him on the Eastman Theatre stage and overflowed into the auditorium seats. Without preliminaries, he launched into "Deep River," proving that hearing William Warfield sing spirituals is still a soul-stirring experience.

He also offered some reminiscences (partly set in Rochester, where he grew up), and sang Lieder by Schubert and Schumann in a frayed but still tremendously communicative voice.

He recalled hearing Paul Robeson sing "Old Man River" in the 1936 movie of Show Boat--and of course sang the song himself, unforgettably, in the 1952 remake. The audience wouldn't have let him go without hearing it again, and he obliged, movingly.

Warfield also did a bit of vocal coaching with John Williams, the baritone who had sung in the previous afternoon's Beethoven Ninth. For his coaching session, Williams chose a Warfield specialty, the last of Brahms's "Four Serious Songs." Urging the younger singer to put more feeling into the final line, "Happy is the man who is content in his work," Warfield sounded as if he could have written the words himself.

Hummings points out that Gateways artists choose their own repertoire, much of it offering a welcome education in the music of black American composers--a heritage as elegant and varied as any in American music.

The ragtime of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries was explored by pianist Roy Eaton, who played their surprisingly serene syncopations every day at noon in Eastman's Main Hall.

The work of more contemporary composers studded the daily chamber music programs: the late Ulysses Kay '40E (MM); William Grant Still, the so-called "Dean of Black American Composers" (whose music was championed at Eastman in the '30s and '40s by Howard Hanson); and Duke Ellington, whose centennial is being celebrated in 1999.

Along with these classics--and on the same program with one of the classics,

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony--was an interesting new piece: an orchestral work by Anthony Kelly, resident composer of the Richmond Symphony. Energetically dissonant and rhythmically vital, "The Breaks" is very up-to-date sounding, but it's also a tribute to four great jazz musicians: Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie. Those names seldom end up on the same program with Beethoven, but they did at Gateways.

Beethoven, Bach, and company have recently come in for their share of knocks as "dead white European composers," and some may question the validity of including their music--with that of Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, and many others--on the Gateways Festival programs. But Hummings will have none of that. She is happy to defend the inclusion not only of those multiple performances of Bach's D Minor Partita, but also of all six of the Brandenburg Concertos.

"When I was child, I loved Bach. I was fascinated with the Inventions and Fugues," she says. "I find that Bach is still alive and well--and that will always be the case. The entire range of human emotions and spirituality is in the music."

Hummings finds even more of that range in Beethoven, whom she calls "the most modern of composers." She sums it up as "a message of courage." She adds, "He knew that even though the body may be having problems, they will not last. Beethoven did not repeat feelings of self-pity and powerlessness in this music. When you get to the end of the Ninth Symphony, you can see the victory. You see the rainbow."

And Beethoven provided perhaps the most memorable moment of many in this year's festival, with help from the Gateways orchestra augmented by a multi-ethnic chorus. In the words of chorus member Anne Day "a patchwork quilt of cultures and singing ability," this group of nearly 200 local singers met for two hours every Monday night during the summer to master Beethoven's demanding music.

This audience member is happy to attest that all that hard work paid off: When the symphony reached its thundering conclusion, it wasn't too hard to see the rainbow.

All men are brothers," sings the chorus at the symphony's climax, and the director of the Gateways Festival applies Beethoven's color-blind vision of unity to the world of music. "Music is a very open field. There are no walls," says Armenta Hummings.

"There is no one excluded from the possibility of being involved. The privileged person here is the one who can find C-sharp!"


David Raymond is a staff writer for City Newspaper.

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