Special Reports

MA Top 30 Professional: Lee Koonce

December 5, 2023 | By John Fleming

President and Artistic Director
Gateways Music Festival

As president and artistic director of the Gateways Music Festival, Lee Koonce has steered the organization through an impressive transformation. Before he assumed the post in 2016, the festival was largely volunteer-run and had an annual budget of about $200,000. Today, with a $2.2 million budget and a professional staff, it is in the midst of an ambitious 2023-24 season comprised of two festivals.

“Never have we had a season as big as this, and it is what we plan to continue in the future,” says Koonce of the 30-year-old festival, which is affiliated with the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Its mission is to connect and support professional classical musicians of African descent with programming that highlights Black composers.

The first festival offered concerts over six days in October, divided between Rochester, NY, and New York City, with a rich helping of music by 18th-century French-Caribbean composer Joseph Boulogne. The second festival is April 15-19 in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and features the all-Black Gateways Festival Orchestra in Margaret Bonds’s symphonic tribute to Martin Luther King Jr, Montgomery Variations. There is also a February 13 concert by the Gateways Chamber Players at Washington’s Kennedy Center.

Koonce has achieved important advances, changing the festival from biennial to annual and improving the level of the orchestra. In January, he  will turn over Gateways leadership to Alex Laing, longtime principal clarinet of the Phoenix Symphony. Laing, who first participated in the festival as a player in the orchestra in 2001, has been executive director since July. (Laing was named a Musical America Top 30 Professional in 2017.) “The most important thing for me is that Alex have the runway he deserves so that he and Gateways can soar,” says Koonce, who will stay on as senior adviser for a while. “I will support him in every way I can.”




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