Jessie Montgomery named as the CSO’s next composer-in-residence

Jessie Montgomery, the CSO's next Mead Composer-in-Residence, will begin her three-year tenure on July 1.

Jiyang Chen

Over the last decade, composer Jessie Montgomery has built a reputation as a fresh, inventive compositional voice in the classical music world, and that assessment just received another important boost.

Riccardo Muti, Zell Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has appointed her as the ensemble’s next Mead Composer-in-Residence, beginning July 1 and continuing through June 30, 2024.

Montgomery, 40, will be the sixth woman to hold the post. She follows 10 well-regarded composers, including John Corigliano and Shulamit Ran, winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Missy Mazzoli, who will complete her three-year tenure this summer.

“It is an incredible opportunity and a tremendous honor," said Montgomery, who received the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation in 2017. “I am deeply grateful to Maestro Muti for having faith in my experience and perspective, for giving me the chance to bring new and exciting music to the CSO, and for sharing his artistry to premiere my own works for symphony orchestra.”

Among her chief duties will be curating the repertoire and exploring new multidisciplinary collaborations for MusicNOW, the CSO's four-concert, contemporary-music series presented annually at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The series features chamber works performed by orchestra musicians and guest artists.

“One of the things I’m looking most forward to is connecting to the world of composers who have inspired me along this artistic path, and hopefully bringing them into the MusicNOW orbit," she said. "I continue to be inspired by Missy Mazzoli’s daring and thoughtful programs, her work ethic and communication style, and I am honored to carry forward the torch of her contributions.”

Montgomery is already at work on the 2021-22 MusicNOW lineup, focusing on past and present Chicago composers to create a “sense of homecoming” after a tumultuous 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. She also plans to scour the city’s young-artist programs and educational institutions in search of emerging talent.

In addition, she will collaborate with the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, which oversees the orchestra’s educational and community-engagement activities, and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, its training ensemble for pre-professional musicians.

As part of the appointment, Montgomery will receive commissions to write three new orchestral works for the CSO, one to premiere during each of her three seasons, as well as commissions for several chamber pieces to debut during the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons of MusicNOW.

Montgomery will be the second Black female composer to have her music performed by the Orchestra, following Florence Price, whose Symphony No. 1 was premiered by the CSO in 1933.

A New York native, Montgomery has composed music since high school. She received a degree in violin performance from the Juilliard School and did not pursue seriously composition until 2008, when she started writing more frequently with the encouragement of colleagues. At the time, she was living in Rhode Island and working as a member of the Providence Quartet. A year later, she enrolled at New York University, gaining a graduate degree in composition for film and multimedia. “Then I began writing more and more and more,” she said, with commissions coming from such organizations as the Albany (N.Y.) Symphony, the Joyce Foundation and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Serving as kind of breakthrough was Strum, which she wrote originally for cello quintet, later revising it for string quartet and string orchestra. She has described the work as “this really fun, pizzicato-y piece — light and dance-like.” Strum, along with Banner (2014) and Starburst (2012), have collectively been programmed almost 500 times to date, with more than 100 live and virtual performances of Starburst in the past year alone.

“I love Jessie Montgomery’s Strum because I can find myself in it,” composer Jeanine Tesori said in an interview last year with the New York Times. “The way it searches and shifts, changing colors and textures; the way the second violin and viola join forces as the cello and first violin do the same. The way it explores and grooves and celebrates these instruments, so you feel they can do anything except land a plane.”

Montgomery’s music was first performed under the CSO’s auspices in May 2019 as part of MusicNOW. Two of her works were featured in that program: Break Away, which premiered in 2013 at the Music of Now festival in New York City, and the world premiere of an arrangement of Gay Guerrilla by composer Julius Eastman, an African-American composer who was homeless and almost forgotten at the time of his death in 1990 at age 49.

The orchestra’s commitment to Montgomery has continued this year, when two of her works were featured in virtual concerts presented on the CSOtv video portal. A performance of Starburst played by members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago began streaming on Jan. 21. Later, a group of CSO musicians performed the string quintet version of Strum in a CSO Sessions program that debuted March 11.

Montgomery has an array of premieres on tap in the next year or so, including I was waiting for the echo of a better day, a major new dance collaboration with choreographer Pam Tanowitz at New York’s Bard SummerScape festival in July. Then American vocalist Julia Bullock will perform the debut of Montgomery’s Five Freedom Songs, for voice and chamber orchestra, at Idaho’s Sun Valley Music Festival, before reprising it with orchestras including the San Francisco and Boston symphonies.

Beyond her composing, Montgomery has emerged as a vibrant voice for change in the classical world. She sees the recent pushes to right such imbalances in response to Black Lives Matter and similar campaigns as an “important turning point.” “There’s a movement happening,” she said. “There’s awareness, and I think awareness is the first step toward change.” And she is convinced that many people in the field are “wholeheartedly committed” to following through on the acknowledgments and commitments that have been made in terms of righting past inequalities.

But as positive as Montgomery is about such change, she has nonetheless seen some misguided, or what she calls “awkward” approaches to achieving diversity goals. She cites examples such as putting more money into Black History Month concerts or assembling a panel of Black musicians but not doing much else. “It still reads like putting Black musicians out in front to sort of be the spokespersons for those organizations, rather than doing the internal work themselves to rebuild their staffs, maybe alter their missions or educate their staffs about how their diversity initiatives are going to work — doing the real consulting and bias-training work.”

The composer is an alumna of the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based group that promotes the participation of people of color in classical music. “They have been an incredible resource and an incredible anchor for this kind of work,” she said. She singled out the National Alliance for Audition Support, in which Sphinx is working with the New World Symphony, based in Miami Beach, and the League of American Orchestras. The program aims to boost the number of Black and Latino musicians auditioning for orchestral openings by providing mentorship, financial support and audition preparation.

Throughout her career, Montgomery has remained steadfast in viewing new music as a transformative force. Reflecting on the current pandemic, which has disrupted performance schedules worldwide, she said, "It's been, of course, a hugely challenging year for many of us, and I just really hope that this entrance into [the composer-in-residence] position can continue to keep us optimistic about what's coming. New music is a really good way to do that. You never know what to expect, and it can be something really, really bright and fantastic and inspiring. I love that new music is an opportunity for us to imagine new possibilities."

Note: Jessie Montgomery will join Missy Mazzoli on May 20 for a free online seminar: From the Composer’s Studio, a live-streamed conversation about what it means to be a composer in 2021. The session will be followed by a Q&A and is open to the public. Advance reservations are required, and more information is available here.