The Gateways Festival Orchestra: The Color of Concert Music

The event described below is part of a series of initiatives of the Anti-Racism Taskforce of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.  See below for details.

The color of concert music is white. Its gender: male.  So goes the popular perception.  To start a conversation on the nature of exclusion, I would often ask my students if they could name a woman composer of “classical,” concert, or symphonic music.  Over decades of asking I only ever got one answer: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s sister.  What could this mean? I asked—That women are simply incapable of writing concert music?  The same could be said of blacks in classical, symphonic, or concert music.  Are they, too, incapable or have they been kept out my multiple systems of exclusion?  The answer is the latter.  Against all odds, however, they’ve been involved in formal concert music for centuries.  The Video below combines two videos: first, a short explanation of the Gateways Music Festival; second an excerpt from Symphony #3 in C minor, by Florence Price, who is both a woman and black.

The Gateways Music Festival started in 1995 in St. Louis, with the goal of bringing together black, professional, classical musicians from around the country to form various ensembles, including a full orchestra, and to educate and transform public perceptions through the power of performance.  In mid-April of this year, we were at Chicago’s iconic Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony, to hear the Gateways Festival Orchestra.  As Andrew Laing, principal clarinetist of the Phoenix Symphony says in the video below, “The Gateways Festival Orchestra opens a line of enquiry with the audience even before we’ve played a single note.” The orchestra is all black.  It may also be the finest orchestra I have ever heard, even including—though I border on heresy here—the Chicago Symphony itself.

That evening the Gateways Festival Orchestra played Worship: A Concert Overture by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, named after one of the earliest black composers to gain considerable fame: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (not to be confused with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge).  The person who championed Coleridge-Taylor was Edward Elgar, the famous, white English composer, so Elgar’s Enigma Variations, was on the program, followed by Margaret Bonds’ Montgomery Variations.  To close out the concert, the great a cappella group Take 6 took the stage doing several numbers on their own and several backed by the full orchestra as well.

The orchestra’s current conductor, the seemingly ever-present Anthony Parnther, spoke of Chicago’s central place in black concert music.  In the video below you’ll see Michael Morgan conducting the Gateways Festival Orchestra, and it was his appointment, by Georg Solti, as assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that made Morgan the most visible black conductor in the United States. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson also spent significant time in Chicago, perhaps most notably when he was appointed artistic director of the performance program at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago.  Florence Price composed her most significant pieces in Chicago after moving there from Little Rock and becoming an important figure in the Black Chicago Renaissance.  She lived for a while with her good friend Margaret Bonds, whose Montgomery Variations graced the program we saw at Symphony Center.  In 1932 the two Chicagoans, Price and Bonds, gained national recognition when they came in first and second in the Wannamaker Prize for Composition.  On June 15, 1933, the Chicago Symphony premiered Price’s  Symphony #1, making her the first black woman, and one of the first women regardless of race, to have a composition played by a major American orchestra.  One critic called the symphony, “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion…worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.” “So…” said Anthony Parnther, “playing in Chicago tonight is a kind of homecoming.”

Towards the end of the first video I excerpted below, Paul Burgett, Chair of the Board of the Gateways Music Festival, and Vice President and senior advisor to the President of Rochester University, says, “I personally struggle, and always have, with a sense of hopelessness about race in America.  But when I see [the Gateways Festival Orchestra] on that stage, I think, Maybe…Just maybe.  It feels really good to see those people on stage and it eases my sense of hopelessness.”  The beauty we witnessed that night on the Symphony Center stage is both all we need to behold without further commentary, but also yet another testament to overcoming great odds with bold, shining excellence.

♦  This event is part of the Northern Illinois Conference Presents series, now in its third year.  For more details go to:  Art and Culture Series (2024), Film Series (2023), Speakers Series (2022).  For the first event of the Film Series I did an introductory talk at the Illinois Holocaust Museum on racism and images of blacks in films. Watch this Here or on the Film Series link above.  For the final event of the Speakers Series I interviewed Chabon Kernell, executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan of the United Methodist Church.  Watch this live-streamed interview at the Speakers Series link above.

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