By Laurence Vittes | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
With Tai Murray starring in a program of 20th-century music about violinists and Faustian bargains, the newly formed Gateways Chamber Players made its Carnegie Hall debut October 22, 2023. It was a year after the Gateways Festival Orchestra, which for 30 years has connected and supported professional classical musicians of African descent, made its own historic Carnegie Hall debut.
Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale Suite and Wynton Marsalis’ reimagining, A Fiddler’s Tale, were conducted by Damien Sneed, with actor Phylicia Rashad narrating the Marsalis. The Gateways Chamber Players had premiered this program at the Eastman School of Music on October 20 and, at press time, was scheduled to take it to Kennedy Center in February and Northwestern in April. The Carnegie Hall performance can be streamed on Carnegie Hall Live.
For someone who clearly enjoys musical storytelling, Murray was glad to share her enthusiasm in words as well. I caught up with her in the midst of a schedule that, after Carnegie Hall, would be taking her to Leiden and Amsterdam, New Haven, São Paolo, Avignon, and Edmonton.
You’ve played Carnegie Hall many times before, but it must have been special to be part of the Gateways Chamber Players debut.
I had a great time. Carnegie Hall, of course, is every classical musician’s childhood dream. And to return as part of the Gateways Music Festival was also something I really appreciated because I love Carnegie Hall. I also love the Gateways Music Festival, which has been a part of my life for a long time, since my middle teens. So to be able to make music that I absolutely love, it felt great.
You’ve done this pairing of the Stravinsky and Marsalis before. It seems like a natural connection.
I’ve done both pieces many times before, sometimes on the same program. One of the things I love about the Marsalis is how it illuminates the Stravinsky. It reminds me of the structure of the Stravinsky, his use of dances, and how specific he is in terms of character in any given moment.
Your Tommaso Balestrieri was made around 1765. How does it handle the fireworks?
I’ve been playing on my Balestrieri since 2014. We are friends. It has a whole range of colors for me to explore. We are recognizable to each other. And we are still discovering things—you know, that’s the hallmark of a great instrument. I play on a Pierre Simon bow. I tend to use Pirastro Oliv strings—not the E string, but the rest.
Who exactly are the Gateways Chamber Players? There’s a gallery on the website of 70 string players who participated from 2015 through 2020 alone.
As you can see, we have a large collective to draw on. The players at this concert just happened to have come together. I was so happy to play with friends like bassoonist Monica Ellis—I love the bassoon—because we have very busy careers outside of this and don’t get to play together very often.
It must be fun working with actors.
Phylicia rehearsed like she was one of the Players, and the exceptional way in which she shaped the narrative and shaped the story was eye opening. For me, as someone who also creates sound, I appreciated hearing how she used colors, specificity of articulation, and length of phrases to give her absolute masterful control.
What was working with Damien Sneed like?
Damien Sneed is a polymath—and that came in very handy. Because in addition to being a brilliant mathematician, musician, orator, conductor, and composer, he has an ability to focus at any moment, which is very inspiring.
You once told me that interpreting music starts with fantasizing, connecting your emotional side with what feels right.
I think that it’s a requirement of anyone trying to tell a story. It’s very difficult to tell a story from a frozen place. So yes, connecting to yourself is important.
The ensemble plays in a lot of different spaces: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Harlem School of Music, and the Greene Space at WQXR.
I think it’s brilliant that their coverage is so large. And the coverage is so large because the populace that is interested in our concerts is so large. It’s something I always try to stress in my personal career and when I talk to my students: the audience is out there, spread out at many different venues, and Gateways does a brilliant job of supplying the music.