Celebrating Jessie Montgomery's tenure as the CSO's Mead Composer-in-Residence

Jessie Montgomery's three seasons as the CSO's Mead Composer-in-Residence have included three orchestral commissions and nine CSO MusicNOW concerts among other accomplishments.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

During her three seasons as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence, Jessie Montgomery has left a profound impression on the orchestra and the city’s cultural scene. Her many accomplishments include a trio of world premieres, the curation of nine inspired CSO MusicNOW concerts and the founding of a unique mentorship program for young composers. The residency has put an exclamation point on an already soaring national and international reputation that includes being named Musical America’s 2023 Composer of the Year and a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

“I have a new sort of family at the CSO,” she said. “I’ve become part of the CSO fabric, and I’m grateful for that.”

Indeed, she has received support from across the orchestra’s staff, including ushers, gift-shop workers and stagehands, not to mention students and visiting groups. “Everyone has been extremely welcoming and open to my ideas throughout my residency,” she said, “I just really appreciated all of that while I have been there. It felt like I could do what I was inspired to.”

“I have a new sort of family at the CSO,” she said. “I’ve become part of the CSO fabric, and I’m grateful for that.”

In April 2021, Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti named Montgomery to the position, which began July 1 of that year and concludes June 30. The New York native followed 10 other well-regarded composers, including John Corigliano and Shulamit Ran, winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Missy Mazzoli, her immediate predecessor.

Major highlights of the residency have been commissions to write three orchestral works for the CSO, starting with Hymn for Everyone, which debuted in April 2022. She wrote the dark “meditation for orchestra” during the pandemic, and it was further marked by the death of her mother in May 2021.

“Few contemporary composers seem to have the ability to write a melody that stays in the memory and Montgomery’s hymn theme is lovely and indelible,” wrote music critic Lawrence A. Johnson in the Chicago Classical Review. “The 12-minute work feels like a throwback—in a good way—to mid-20th century American music centered on a tonal lyricism, albeit with an unflinching eye and lack of sentimentality.”

Her second commission received its premiere in May 2023 — Transfigure to Grace, which evolved from a chamber music score that Montgomery composed in 2019 for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Titled Passage, it commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to America.

“I was really happy with how those went,” Montgomery said, “and it was really great to have Maestro Muti be the conductor of those pieces.”

Rounding out this triumvirate of new works is Procession, a concerto that Montgomery wrote for Cynthia Yeh, the CSO’s principal percussion, that will premiere May 30, 31 and June 1. Yeh approached the composer two years ago or so about the possibility, and the two have collaborated closely on it, including selecting instruments and crafting the work’s overall tone.

“It just made a lot sense,” Montgomery said. “Writing for percussion is new to me, and I thought this would be a good, big way to get into the world of percussion, and my music is rhythmically inspired, so it felt like a natural way to communicate that.”

In preparation, she looked at other contemporary percussion concertos by such composers as Kalevi Aho, Jennifer Higdon, James MacMillan and Stephen Mackey. “I had to study up on ways that people have worked with percussion before,” she said.  

“. . . My music is rhythmically inspired, so it felt like a natural way to communicate that.”

The piece is inspired in part by the Freedom Now Suite, which was developed by jazz drummer Max Roach and lyricist Oscar Brown. The work is featured on a well-regarded 1960 recording that includes vocalist Abby Lincoln on all five tracks. “I thought the way Max Roach responds on the drums to her melodies inspired this really melodic approach to the drums that I tried to capture in some of the sections of the piece,” Montgomery said.

An exciting aspect of these commissions for Montgomery has been the chance to get up close to the CSO and write directly for it. “Writing to the sound of the orchestra is something you don’t really get to do unless you are with an orchestra for a long time,” she said. “That’s been a really interesting process of just learning the language, so to speak, of the orchestra and trying to write to enhance and highlight that.”

The CSO has what the composer calls an “old-world sound” with lush strings and brass and winds that have a kind of glow. “It’s an iconic sound that comes to mind when you think of the old recordings that I grew up listening to as a kid,” she said. “That’s what I had in my ear, so it’s just really amazing to be in the room and hear them work. That’s been really special.”

The Orchestra also commissioned two chamber works by Montgomery for the CSO MusicNOW series, including a violin duo performed by the composer and Rachel Barton Pine and a Concerto Grosso featuring violinist Curtis Stewart that premiered in March. Several of her existing works were also performed on the main subscription, Civic Orchestra, and family concert series during her tenure.

On June 13-15, the CSO and guest conductor Juraj Valčuha will present the regional premiere of The Elements, a 2023 concerto that features famed violin soloist Joshua Bell, who conceived and commissioned the work. He invited five composers — Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, Edgar Meyer, Montgomery and Kevin Puts — to each write a movement dedicated to the classical elements of fire, air, space, water and earth. “To have music side by side with that particular group of composers is really exciting,” Montgomery said.

Among her chief duties as Mead Composer-in-Residence has been curating the repertoire and exploring new multidisciplinary collaborations for MusicNOW, the CSO’s contemporary-music series that features chamber works performed by Orchestra musicians and guest artists.

Montgomery has emphasized diversity in her choices of composers for the series, including her inclusion of works on a December 3, 2023, concert by Jasmine Barnes, Damien Geter, Shawn E. Okpebholo, Dave Ragland and Joel Thompson. The five are members of an informal composer group with a playful name, the Blacknificent 7.

“I really love how diverse the audiences are for MusicNOW,” Montgomery said, “and I feel like it is really a wonderful expression of the breadth of community there is in Chicago around new music.”

She also pointed with pride to some of the high-profile composers who have taken part in CSO MusicNow during her tenure, including Osvaldo Golijov (February 20, 2023), a former Mead Composer-in-Residence, and violinist Mark O’Connor who performed two of his works (Nov. 21, 2022), with his wife, Maggie, also a violinist. Performances and works by composer and bassist Xavier Foley were also on the program.

More recently, Curtis Stewart, artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra, served as violin soloist on March 3, 2024, for the world premiere of his CSO MusicNOW-commissioned violin concerto, Resonance.

“I really love how diverse the audiences are for MusicNOW,” Montgomery said, “and I feel like it is really a wonderful expression of the breadth of community there is in Chicago around new music.”

Montgomery has also overseen the two-year-old Young Composers Initiative, in which high-school students from across the Chicago area (five in 2022-23 and six in 2023-24) work on compositions with the benefit of her guidance and individual coaching that are performed by members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. This season’s culminating concert is set for May 31 in Symphony Center’s Buntrock Hall.

“I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done,” Montgomery said. “It’s been very full between all of the commissions and certainly the curatorial work with MusicNOW and the really nice successes in those programs over the last few years.”

Young Composers Initiative finalists Sofia Ruiz Cordero, Lincoln Gibbs, Brandon Harper, Malik Muhammad and Angel Alday applaud the performers at the 2023 recital.

Todd Rosenberg Photography