Rick Fleming, associate professor of music, will join about 60 other African American musicians for the Gateway Music Festival, held in Rochester from August 10 to 14.
“This festival is interesting for two reasons,” said Fleming. “One is that it’s classical music performed by African American musicians. The other is that we take the music out to the community.”
Although the culminating event is a full orchestra performance at the Eastman School of Music, most performances will take place in churches and homes throughout Rochester. Fleming is playing Alec Wilder’s Jazz Suite for Brass Quintet at a local church.
The Gateway Music Festival was founded in 1993, but this will be the first time Fleming is taking part. “I’m excited,” he said. “These are first-rate musicians from orchestras and universities all around the country. I’m looking forward to hearing their stories: How did they get into it? Did they have access to classical music as children? Did they grow up in urban areas?”
Fleming himself encountered music when, as an eighth-grader at Brinkley Junior High School in Jackson, Mississippi, he joined the school’s band. “Truth be told,” he said, “I tried out for the football team, but I got cut. So I joined band instead.”
He really wanted to play the euphonium or the baritone horn. “But the school band director had already given those instruments to other kids,” Fleming said. “He told me, ‘I need some trombone players,’ and I said okay because I knew I’d have to play an instrument the school could lend me.”
Although his high school band played many classical pieces, Fleming didn’t know it. “It wasn’t until years later,” he said, “when I was studying music, I’d recognize a movement from a symphony as something I’d played in a band arrangement back in school.” He traces his passion for classical music to the first time he heard Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. “It has this trombone solo,” said Fleming, “and I fell in love with it.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t play other kinds of music. “I’ve worked to have the opportunity to play diverse styles of music,” he said, “and I enjoy them all: jazz, Latin, brass quintet, soca.”
However, classical music holds a special place in his heart, and he leans forward as he tries to explain why. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that classical music is so full of passion,” he said. “Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique—it’s about a man’s love for a woman who doesn’t return his love. Many of the composers had really hard lives, with their own struggles and demons to overcome. And some of them never did overcome them; they just learned to live with them.
“For example, Brahms only has four symphonies because he was so full of self-doubt, he’d tear up music he’d written because he thought it wasn’t good enough. Or Mahler and Mendelssohn—their music was banned because of their Jewish heritage. I guess what I’m saying, these people had the same issues as we have, as all human beings have. This music is not remote and untouchable.”
Fleming believes that young people need role models. He said, “Sometimes, you have to see someone who looks like you, who shares your experiences, doing what you want to do. Then you realize it’s possible for you, too.”
Because it takes the music to neighborhoods, Fleming expects the Gateway Music Festival’s audience will include everyone, including young people. Fleming, a strong proponent of music in schools, is concerned that cuts to education funding mean that students will not hear, let alone play, a variety of music. “If it’s not in the schools, where will the future generation of musicians come from?” he asked.