The reins of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) have been passed to the very talented hands of a new leader – Amanda Gookin, a Grammy-nominated cellist, educator, and activist. Gookin replaces David McCormick, who served as the festival’s executive director for the last four years, and recently accepted the directorship of the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival.
Coming from New York City, Gookin directs the new music ensemble at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music and teaches at the New School College of Performing Arts. She is also the founder of PUBLIQuartet – a string quartet she performed with for 10 years. The group was nominated for a GRAMMY Award in January 2020.
“Amanda is both an accomplished musical artist and a proven arts administrator, and she has demonstrated commitment to the important role that music can play in social and community development,” said Provost Fred Kniss. “This combination of qualities makes her an ideal leader for the next chapter in the Bach Festival.”
While Gookin’s accolade-studded career has given her many different roles, she said she doesn’t see a separation between her performance, work in education, and activism.
“In my musical life as a cellist, I’m very much involved in musical activism: upholding values of equity, justice and inclusion in my work, which then is put into my teaching when I talk to students about their value systems and the history of classical music and contemporary music,” Gookin said.
Musical activism, to her, means “ensuring everyone’s voice is heard, understanding power structures, and creating a community around art and activism that gets everybody involved in the artistic process.
While classical music was born of white European composers, Gookin explained that “there is a lot of music that has been left out of the history books, like music by women, LGBTQ+, and Black composers, and it’s overdue to give voice to them.” As part of this musical activism, Gookin founded the Forward Music Project in 2015. It began, she said, as a solo cello project. She commissioned seven women to write music for her to perform in whatever style the composers chose.
She received compositions that blurred the line between classical performance and performance art: “visceral stories” that included spoken word, acting, or playing percussion with her feet.
“I love to perform all kinds of music,” Gookin said, but she particularly enjoys “premiering a work that nobody’s heard before.”
Gookin brings that same mold-breaking energy to the Bach Festival, scheduled for June 13-20, 2021. While the pandemic, most likely, will not be entirely behind us next summer, she has creative ideas about presenting a safe and engaging festival.
“I’m really up for this challenge,” she said. “I think it’s going to be really exciting, because if the pandemic has done anything, it’s encouraged people to become innovative in the way they present music.”