Diving Into Opera, Jessie Montgomery Gains A Foothold

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Composer Jessie Montgomery, working with a production team of African-American women, has helped to re-imagine Scott Joplin’s opera ‘Treemonisha’ for an international consortium of presenters. Her music’s in demand. (Photo by Jiyang Chen)
By Angela Allen

PROFILE – Composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery is having a moment. Make that a lot of moments. At 38, she has surpassed rising-star status and secured a spot in the circle of risen constellations. Her music is in demand by orchestras, chamber ensembles, filmmakers, and dance groups.

She’s diving into opera as well. One of her recent projects, Treemonisha, is a reimagining of Scott Joplin’s 1911 work, the earliest known African-American opera, but this time involving a creative team of African-American women. Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth created the orchestration and arrangements. (When the opera was done on Broadway in 1975, with Carmen Balthrop and Kathleen Battle sharing the starring role, the orchestrations were by Gunther Schuller.) Montgomery’s version will debut on April 23 in Palo Alto, Cal., as part of Stanford University’s “Stanford Live” series. The project has co-commissioners from the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

In January alone, Montgomery’s explosive three-minute Starburst (2012) will be played by the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, South Bend Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, and Hilton Head Symphony. The Houston arts collaborative Musiqa will engage dancers for Starburst. South Carolina Philharmonic will feature her Records from a Vanishing City, premiered in 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

“Strum,” Montgomery’s music for strings, tumbles joyfully.

Even the U.S. Marine Band’s chamber orchestra will take up Strum, Montgomery’s seven-minute quartet, in March at Northern Virginia Community College. A Washington Post critic called the piece “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life when it sounded like a handful of American folk melodies tossed into a strong wind, cascading and tumbling joyfully around one another.”

Montgomery possesses the energy, talent, and flourishing reputation to fuel many more years of composing, advocating for people of color, and playing the violin. She is a member of the New York-based Catalyst Quartet, which has recorded an album of her music. She’s also a collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and a recipient of commissions from top chamber and dance groups. Those efforts comprise a small chunk of her accomplishments and advocacies.

Montgomery performs in the New York-based Catalyst Quartet.

In part, Montgomery credits mentors with the steady flowering of her string compositions. At a Utah workshop for emerging composers and quartets that she attended a few years ago, American composer Joan Tower insisted that “music is emotional – you make certain structural choices accordingly,” Montgomery said in a phone interview from her Greenwich Village apartment. Tower became a valued mentor and regular teacher, as did Laura Kaminsky, composer of the recent transgender chamber opera, As One. The Kaminsky connection led to a commission for the eight-minute Source Code, another exuberant Montgomery composition that the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival featured in 2019, its fourth summer of intimate wine-country concerts near Portland, Ore. Montgomery served as the composer-in-residence.

Cellist Leo Eguchi, WVCMF co-director, compared her composing to her violin-playing: “Perhaps because she is such a natural improvisor, her violin-playing is much like her compositional voice — immediate, strong, and lovely.”

When Montgomery works with musicians, he said, “she has a gift for addressing hard issues, whether musical (in performance) or societal (in her compositions) with a gentle smile and a sweeping sense of progress that helps you see how to do better.”

Since its first season in 2016, Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival co-founders Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi have engaged a composer-in-residence to participate in the intimate, late-summer wine-country concerts. (Kelly Stewart)

Violinist Sasha Callahan, co-director of WVCMF with Eguchi, was thrilled to have Montgomery work with her musicians. “Jessie is brilliant and incisive, and extremely sensitive and aware, and possesses that all-too-rare combination of confidence and humility,” Callahan said. “She jumps into everything with both feet, eager to contribute. She has a fantastic sense of humor and fun alongside an intensity and seriousness of purpose. She seems to mine each experience for everything it’s worth.”

Though chamber and orchestra programs may pair her pieces with those by Beethoven, J.S. Bach, and little-known Baroque composer Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, her work has a distinctive poetic and pioneering new-music vibe. Strum, below – composed in 2006 and revised substantially in 2012 – “was originally conceived for a quintet of two violins, viola, and two cellos [it is also scored for a string quartet],” she said, “so the voicing is spread over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive sound. I utilized texture motives – layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinatos (repeating figures) – to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk ideas and the spirit of dance and movement, Strum is a narrative that begins with a fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.”

For a young composer whose yesteryear favorites are Stravinsky and Bartók, her pieces bring on unexpected – if shorter – fireworks.

An accomplished violinist, Montgomery likes to play as much as compose. As brightly as her star is burning in the new-music sky of compositions, Montgomery says that she becomes “depressed” when she doesn’t play her violin. “Playing the violin unlocks my thinking,” she said. She has been plucking and bowing since she was 4, growing up in Manhattan’s vibrant Lower East Side among artists, activists, politicos, and musicians during the 1980s and ’90s.

Her first teacher, Alice Kanack at Manhattan’s Third Street Music School Settlement, encouraged improvisation. “It shaped my thinking and encouraged me to start composing by age 11,” Montgomery said. She created a piece for her junior high school band. In high school, she twice received the Composers’ Apprentice Award from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Despite the attention and accolades, Montgomery is hungry to learn more.

Since fall 2019, she has pursued a PhD in musical composition at Princeton University, leaving behind the apartment she lived in since childhood with her mother Robbie McCauley  – an actress, playwright and teacher – and her father Ed Montgomery, who is also a musician. She has an undergraduate degree from Juilliard in violin performance and a master’s in composition and film scoring from New York University. She teaches improvisation workshops and works with high school black and Latino string players at the Sphinx Performance Academy, an organization dedicated to diversity in music.

Montgomery composes at the piano and on violin and “sings a lot” when composing.

Her music is organized around pitch and harmony. “I get a little obsessed about pitch,” she said. “I pay attention to the physical arc. It’s both a visceral and narrative process. Some of my pieces are deliberately narrative. I’m concerned with the evolution of the pieces. I’m fascinated by the colors and textures. I’ve always experimented with those things.”

Montgomery speaks eloquently to issues of inclusion in classical music: “Recently there has been a lot of interest from organizations, large and small, to highlight the works of marginalized groups, in particular women composers and women composers of color. At this time of change there is a desire to enrich our art forms with more diverse voices and to enrich our own curiosity in artists’ perspectives.”

She sees classical music appealing to more people, especially, as contemporary composers make inroads. “Audiences are changing,” she said. “There are a lot more diverse audiences for new music. The audiences are younger, there’s a wider range. But it’s a slow process.”

As for her own music, she calls the sudden burst of interest both “refreshing and overwhelming. It is sometimes hard to know if people are genuinely interested in the content or if they are filling a quota. Some attention is money-driven. Some organizations have been threatened by loss of funds if their programs fail to feature works by people of color. But as a composer of color, one hopes the interest is genuinely about discovering new music.”

Whatever the reasons for inclusion, she says, the exposure is timely and appreciated by artists and audiences. She mentions composers Valerie Coleman, Courtney Bryan, and Florence Price as women of color who have attracted attention lately.

At the 2019 Gateways Music Festival in Rochester, N.Y., Price’s works were heavily featured. Price, the “godmother of black American concert music, was overlooked in her lifetime due to her low social status,” Montgomery said. “Now her works are finally receiving deserved recognition, and her significant position in history is being acknowledged.”

As a new decade begins, Montgomery takes pride in the swelling interest in the music she’s adding to the classical canon. “It’s been a good moment for me,” she said. “It’s a positive thing, but awkward sometimes. It’s a change. I look forward to how it all unfolds.”

Angela Allen writes about music for Oregon ArtsWatch in Portland, OR. She is a published poet and photographer, and on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her web site is AngelaAllenWrites.com