Gateways Festival Orchestra is a moment of visibility for Black classical music

Gateways Festival Orchestra

The Gateways Music Festival is a moment of visibility for Black classical music, a chance to network, and a chance to visit great venues. But it’s also a reunion.

“The orchestra’s like a family reunion, so many friends and colleagues at one time,” said conductor Anthony Parnther, who will lead the culminating concert at Orchestra Hall on April 19. “It’s definitely a safe space where musicians can come together and make music.”

“People have been in it for decades. Babies have grown up in that ensemble,” said Caitlin Edwards, a Chicago-based violinist who will be joining the festivities.

Gateways artistic director Alexander Laing said that his first concert playing clarinet with the ensemble in 2001 was “a real before and after moment for me. It showed me I could experience a deeper love for this music, and it was a cultural affirmation.” As well as the shared experience of making music together, he said, Gateways was also “the only time when I’m not one or two people of color onstage. There’s a shared sense of purpose.”

The organization usually presents one or two events a year in Rochester, its home base, or New York City. “Having a big epic full orchestra festival in Chicago is a big step in our growth,” Laing said. “We’re bringing 100 incredible artists from all over the country to Chicago.”

The festival will also feature performances by Gateways chamber orchestra and brass quintet, which are full-time touring groups, and other events at churches and community centers in the city.

School and youth outreach is “renewing for everyone,” Laing said. “It’s a virtuous cycle. The road to being a professional musician starts early. It’s not just something we do for ourselves. We’re getting something from it, as well.”

“Kids who think of classical music may have the perspective that it’s stuffy and elitist,” Edwards said. “But when they see folks who look like them perform, they’re blown away. They’re like, ‘I could do that.’”

To take the leadership of Gateways, Laing is on a leave of absence from his job as principal clarinet of the Phoenix Symphony, and in Chicago he will play at the Monday night chamber concert. “It’s a great program and ensemble,” he said, “and it’s worth the late hours practicing to keep at the top of my game.”

The concert at Orchestra Hall will feature Montgomery Variations by Margaret Bonds, whom Laing called “an important American composer, period, full stop.” The piece was written during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, and it complements another work on the program from the very center of the repertoire, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. “That music belongs to everyone,” Laing said, “and it belongs to us, too.”

The second half will feature the a cappella gospel sextet Take 6. “We’re big fans, as lots of people are,” Laing said. “We don’t see bright lines between genres of music.”

Gateways musicians are paid, and participation is by invitation. Laing said that every concert includes some first-timers, alongside a few who have been at every event for the past 31 years. “Between generations, between the stage and the audience – we’re trying to create more gateways,” he said.

Edwards values listening to older members’ stories about “the things they had to go through, and their joys.” She fell in love with the violin as a child and was “always yearning for people who looked like me who played string instruments.” Seven years after her first Gateways concert, she said, “I can look across the stage and see the faces of people I’ve shared experiences with. They’re like family to me.”