Gateways Music Festival’s Lee Koonce

Mike Lawson • • April 7, 2017

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Lee Koonce is the president and artistic director for the Gateways Music Festival and senior adviser to the dean of the Eastman School of Music.

He grew up in the south side of Chicago and started out on piano at the age of eight. Like many kids in Chicago public school back in the 1960s, he was handed an instrument in third grade, which was a violin and so he played violin (he says, “horribly”) in elementary school. When Lee got to high school, there was both a band and an orchestra. There he first took to baritone horn, and then after that played the flute and continued with the flute through college, playing his first two years in a symphonic band.

The festival attracts professional classical musicians of African descent from the nation’s top orchestras, chamber music ensembles, and educational institutions — and has been awarded two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Where did you go to college?

I went to the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio for undergrad in piano performance. Then I went to the Eastman School of Music, where I happen to work now, for a piano performance masters.

Was your early training primarily the public school system, or through private lessons, or a combination?

Well, certainly the flute and violin were in the public schools; you did programs back in those days in the schools. But piano was individual lessons at my piano teacher’s home, who was as it turns out, really an extraordinary pianist. That’s how I started. My sister and I started at the same time.

You don’t hear of a lot of students playing both brass and woodwinds.

Yeah, that’s funny. Well, I think it had a lot to do with the size of the instrument and at a certain point I had to figure out, “How am I going to get on the bus and public transportation with a baritone horn versus a flute?” I like to say, “Oh, it’s because I love the sound of the flute so much more.” Really, it was about just being able to move around with the instrument. On the other hand, I must say I’m a pianist, that’s my primary instrument. The challenge there is we really can’t carry our instruments with us so you’re subject to whatever you find, wherever you go. A lot of pianists call them PSOs. They’re piano shape objects, they’re not “really“ pianos.

Tell me about the Gateways Music Festival — how it started and what is its mission?

It was started 23 years ago by an extraordinary pianist by the name of Armenta Hummings. She’s now Hummings-Dumisani. She was a Juilliard grad back in the 1950s, and when Juilliard celebrated its 100th anniversary a couple of years ago, she was named one of the Julliard 100. She’s an extraordinary woman and a woman of African descent. In the 1950s, especially for women, there were very few places for people of African descent to play classical music professionally. And so, many of them — Nina Simone went to Juilliard to be a classical pianist, Hazel Scott, went to Juilliard to become a classical pianist, but there were no jobs for them, so they became jazz people. Armenta ended up spending much of her career touring and teaching, touring for the state department, outside of the United States. She had children, and one of her sons was becoming an extraordinary violist. She wanted to provide a community for him of people who had a similar experience — people who had a background playing with other classical musicians of African descent.

In 1993, she started the Gateways Music Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Its mission is to connect and support the community of professional classical musicians of African descent and to enrich the lives of the community. But it’s basis is really to support these musicians so that they can excel in their professional work. It also allows them to be role models for young people coming up, young band students, orchestra students. Many of them, as we encounter in our work, have never seen people of African descent play these instruments before.

What do you think some of the reasons are that professional classical musicians of color are lower in numbers?

We are not feeding enough children into the beginning stages of the pipeline. Programs like Accelerando with the symphony in Nashville are amazing. The El Sistema programs around the country are terrific. However, we need millions of young black and Latino kids learning how to play the violin. We need millions learning how to play the cello and other instruments of the band and the orchestra. Until then, I think that the numbers will continue to be small. The analogy that I use a lot is that in the field of any professional sport like basketball, there are millions of black boys and now girls who aspire to play in the NBA/WMBA. Because of that the level of play is extraordinarily high, and the NBA, when it was founded in 1946, had 0% black men, now has 74% black men. But that’s because the pool that’s feeding the NBA is so large. It’s a pool of boys of African descendants. All we must do is look at some of the Asian countries. The last I read there were over 40,000,000 kids in China learning how to play the piano. And as many learning how to play other instruments, mostly the violin, if not more. If you look China and you look at Japan and you look at Korea, you’ll see that in the top tier orchestras, there are more than 20% of players of Asian descent. It’s the numbers that make the difference. I think that as it relates to black and Latino, youngsters. There are just not enough in the pipeline.

Do you think there are a lack of access to instruction or is it a financial barrier for them? Do you think there is issues like that that really are cultural, that are helping to keep this from happening?

In my opinion, I believe that it is something that to have a significant change, must again be a standard part of public school curriculum. The public schools in this country were the great equalizers in many, many ways. They provided access and opportunity for millions and millions of kids of all ethnic backgrounds and all income levels. I think the way to reach the majority and the numbers that we need is through the public school program, especially in urban environments. There are millions and millions of kids around the country learning how to play musical instruments in schools. There is certainly a musical benefit and there are many, many other benefits to playing music, but we kind of tend to try to forget that there are other benefits. So, those kids who don’t go on to become professional musicians, because they’ve had this experience playing an instrument, are more likely to want to attend a classical music concert or any other kind of live music concert. They’re also more likely to become donors to a musical organization. They’re more likely to serve on a board of a musical organization. They’re more likely to be a staff person or an administrative leader at a musical organization because of that experience playing a musical instrument. So, without that the field, the work, the music is this foreign thing to so many people of African and Latino descent in this country because there has been that lack of exposure in a wide level in public schools. I say that knowing that there was a time within the black community that in churches were where many, many, many musicians came from.

Because those churches were doing anthems. They were doing oratories. They had small orchestras in south side of Chicago, almost all the old churches had pipe organs. They had people who played those pipe organs. As music styles have changed and with a lack of music in public schools, those programs in churches have become much more pop focused. So, you have an extraordinary huge church with this amazing pipe organ in the back. But up in the front, there is an electronic keyboard. Nobody touches the pipe organ anymore. There was a time when that was a part of the black community culture, and that time, it seems, is behind us.

I think that’s where the disconnect is in the ecosystem. Orchestras by and large are really doing their part. I think they’re also kind of coming out of their shells. Orchestras used to kind of live in this rarified area, talking amongst themselves. Now they realize that it’s important for them to talk with community music schools and work with them, and work with the El Sistema programs, work with the conservatories. Everybody in this classical music ecosystem now seems to be communicating with each other. That is completely different than it was 15 or 20 years ago. Everybody was in their own little silo. So, I’m hopeful that things can change and improve because the different organizations in this ecosystem, are speaking with each other and are working together.

How can we use that as an opportunity to expand interest in classical music?

I think that the key is to get the instruments into kid’s hands at an early enough age. It’s difficult to give a child a violin at 16 and expect they will be able to accomplish anything significant other than enjoyment by starting that late, when kids are starting the violin at three and five. But the other part of the key is, in my opinion, we should not be calling it classical music instruction. It’s music instruction. Instrumental instruction. So, if that kid is playing the cello, wants to learn that technique and use that technique to play hip-hop, then so be it. I think that one of the things we’ve done in the field and classical music, is that we’ve been these purists. We’ve said that, “This is a school of classical music. This is all we do here.” You know what? It says we’re school of music. So, that means all kinds of music, and the extent to which we have kind of pigeonholed ourselves into this one little niche of classical music is, I think, how we’ve lost so many kids. Teach music and let the kids find their own voice. Their voice might be rock ‘n roll, their voice might be hip-hop, their voice might be rap.

For how long and what kind of help has Eastman School of Music been to the Gateways Music Festival?

I’m glad you asked that. Eastman formalized a partnership with Gateways in 2016. But the fact is, Eastman has supported Gateways since 1995, in almost the same way that it is now. It’s just become more public. I give Eastman a lot of credit, because they’ve never really asked for credit for all those years. I don’t believe that Gateways would exist today, if Eastman had not been such a major supporter starting in 1995. That said, the primary support for Gateways has always come from the community of Rochester. The financial support is from the black community in Rochester. The founder of the organization would take a shopping cart full of violins, and she would go church to church, teaching kids how to play the violin. So, in her work, in her view of the world, the churches were fundamental to the black community. So, that too has supported Gateways and really made it survive. But Eastman has been there all along, right beside these churches and these community folks, but as kind of a silent partner. Now it has just become more public, so I think that’s all that’s really changed.

For the entire six days of the festival, we pretty much have full run of the entire Eastman School of Music and Eastman Theater. So just the cost of that alone, the staffing for of that is something that Eastman has provided for many years. But in this new partnership, Eastman is helping to support my position of president and artistic director, which is the first paid staff person the festival has ever had.

When are the dates for the next Gateways Music Festival?

August 8th through the 13th.

What kind of activities will occur during the festival?

I’ll give you the order in which they occur. There is a piano recital. We train about five other pianists who have prominent careers right now. There are two chamber musical recitals that feature small ensembles from the larger group of 125 musicians. The second chamber music concert has little bit bigger ensembles. After the chamber music concert on Friday night, the musicians and the chamber music groups go out into the community and perform. There are about 30 performances in community venues. That includes libraries, City Hall, and Cornhill Landing, which is a landing out on the Tennessee River. Then last are at private homes, which are used as fundraisers. There are plenty more.

Will the home concerts be chamber orchestra size events?

There will be chamber groups, three to five musicians. That size. There will be about 20 of those in homes throughout Rochester, and they’re fundraisers. They raise money for Gateways in each of those events. That same night, there are also three performances open to the public. Two of those are outdoors and one is indoors. We do the same thing in the communities, in the homes and community centers that we do on Saturday. We go to houses of worship on Sunday morning. There will be 125 musicians on that Sunday morning, playing all over Rochester in local churches. Then in the afternoon, we culminate the festival in a large full orchestra concert at Kodak Hall.

How many musicians participate in the festival and where are they coming from?

There are 125. They come from all over. From California all the way to the East Coast. We have a few who come from Europe. We have a couple of violinists from Berlin. We’ll have a bass player this year coming from London, one player from Canada. We have a harp player from the Dominican Republic. But most them are from the U.S., and they’re a mix between musicians who play in symphony orchestras, those who are faculty at collegiate music schools. Then the remainder are freelancers. They freelance in Atlanta or Boston or L..A. or other locations.

This sounds like a remarkable event for a city to have.

I agree. Talking about our dreams for the future, we would love to see this festival become a destination festival. The festival that people come from all over the country to participate in like they do for Glimmerglass or Tanglewood or others. To have this level of music making as a part of a festival, especially in the community, makes Gateways incredibly unique.

How often is the festival produced and is there a goal to try to do this in other cities?

It has been bi-annual up until this year. But the goal is that after this year, it will become an annual festival. A lot of that depends on the funding for it. We do want to go to other cities. The discussion right now is to host the festival in Rochester and then for the second week, we expand for a week. After that final concert on Sunday, we jump in a bus and we take the orchestra to Philadelphia or to Boston, or to D.C. or something like that. Then another year we might do the Midwest, and then the year after that we might do the West Coast. And we’ll take the show on the road.

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