Muti, Chicago SO Select Jessie Montgomery As Composer In Residence


CHICAGO – Given this city’s diverse musical heritage, as deeply rooted in the music of the 20th century’s Great Migration as it is in Latinx tradition and 19th-century European classical music, the appointment of a woman of color as the next composer in residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra comes as a notable next step in the orchestra’s evolution. 

Composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery.(Photo by Jiyang Chen)

Jessie Montgomery, 40, has been selected by CSO music director Riccardo Muti to succeed Missy Mazzoli in June, the orchestra announced April 20. A rising star in the classical world, Montgomery has an approach to each new work that seems to be about getting historical and global musical traditions to listen to each other. Whether her project is re-imagining the orchestra of Scott Joplin’s ragtime-era opera Tremonisha, creating a symphonic meditation on the “Star Spangled Banner” in the context of history, or writing a brand new cadenza to Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto, each work suggests the vitality of another cultural point of view. 

Reached by telephone, Montgomery said she has not yet met Muti in person. “But it will probably happen for the first time in October,” she added, “and I’ll be there many times for long stretches.” The residency includes a commission for an orchestral work to be created with Muti’s support and performed by the CSO in a future season. [See this 2020 profile in Classical Voice North America by Angela Allen, who noted the composer’s fast rise. ]

Montgomery said she’s expressly looking forward to curating MusicNOW, the orchestra’s off-campus series of new music concerts followed by pizza and beer parties, where performers and a typically young crowd can mingle. “To be thinking about music that people have never heard before, and to be included in the revelation that comes with the discovery of that – I hope to continue to keep that a part of my life,” she said.

Montgomery will be working in the hometown of Florence Price, whom Montgomery has called “the godmother of Black music.” The first  African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, Price was also the first to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, and she arrived in Chicago as a child with her family as part of the Great Migration.  

“I can definitely envision a big Florence Price celebration, involving key programming events,” Montgomery said, “but we’re still figuring a lot of that out. And jazz is huge passion of mine. I think we will be looking for ways to partner with local Chicago arts organizations, whether through mentorships or MusicNOW.” Montgomery, also a violinist and former member of the Catalyst String Quartet (below), well may show up on stage herself.

Her other recent works, giving evidence of a fresh and eclectic spirit, include a piece for tuba multiphonics and string quartet (on Bob Stewart’s album Connections: Mind the Gapand the choral work I Have Something to Say, to texts by teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg and Sojourner Truth, with a part for young voices. 

Muti’s history of composer-in-residence appointments suggests a tendency to go young, and it tilts female. In 2010 he appointed Mason Bates (b. 1977) and Anna Clyne (b.1980). They were followed in 2015 by Sam Adams (b.1985) and Elizabeth Ogonek (b. 1989).

The CSO’s current composer in residence, Missy Mazzoli, was born in 1980. The COVID-19 pandemic proved disruptive to the CSO’s plans to perform Mazzoli’s orchestra commission, which now will happen in a future season, according to CSO spokesperson Eileen Chambers.

Past composers in residence include John Corigliano, Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas, Osvaldo Golijov, and Mark Anthony Turnage.