Refreshing and overwhelming

An interview with composer-violinist Jessie Montgomery, performed and performing this weekend at Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival

By ANGELA ALLEN

Rising-star—or risen constellation—composer Jessie Montgomery will light up Sokol Blosser Winery’s Dundee tasting room for two concerts Aug. 17 and 18, final weekend of this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. (See my Oregon Arts Watch feature story.)

Expect excitement, as well as three 2-ounce pours of Sokol Blosser vintages throughout the concert, which includes two compositions by Montgomery, Baroque composer Elisabeth–Claude Jacquet’s “Sonata for D for Violin and Cello” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 132.

The program’s centerpiece, Montgomery’s 7-minute quartet Strum, is “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life,” wrote a Washington Post critic. “It sounded like a handful of American folk melodies tossed into a strong wind, cascading and tumbling joyfully around one another.”

Composer-violinist Jessie Montgomery.

Like that much-praised and much-played composition, Montgomery at 37 has 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, a collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, and recipient of numerous commissions from top chamber and dance groups. Those efforts and honors comprise a small chunk of her accomplishments, accolades and advocacies. 

Compositional Catalysts

At a Utah workshop for emerging composers and quartets that Montgomery attended a few years ago, venerable American composer Joan Tower insisted “that music is emotional—you make certain structural choices” accordingly, Montgomery said. Tower, who was last year’s WVCMF composer-in-residence, became a valued mentor and regular teacher for Montgomery. Another important mentor was Laura Kaminsky, composer of Portland Opera’s recent chamber piece, As One. The connection led to a commission for the 8-minute 2013 quartet Source Code, the other Montgomery composition on this weekend’s program. 

An accomplished violinist, Montgomery will be fiddling with the chamber players for the concerts. As brightly as her star is burning in the new-music composition sky, Montgomery says she becomes “depressed” when she doesn’t play her violin. She has been doing that since she was four years old, growing up on the vibrant lower East Side of Manhattan among artists, neighborhood activists, politicos and musicians during the 1980s and ‘90s. 

Her first teacher, Alice Kanack at the Third Street Music School Settlement in Manhattan, encouraged improvisation within modes. “It shaped my thinking and inspired me to start composing by age 11,” she told ArtsWatch. A supportive music teacher was thrilled that she composed a piece for her junior high school band. In high school, she twice received the Composer’s Apprentice Award from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Montgomery now resides in the same apartment she lived in as a child with actress/playwright/professor mother Robbie McCauley and musician father Ed Montgomery, but this fall she will move to Princeton University, where she is a graduate fellow and PhD candidate in musical composition. She has an undergraduate degree from Juilliard in violin performance and a Masters in composition and film scoring from New York University, and teaches improvisation workshops and works with high-school level black and Latino string players at the Sphinx Performance Academy, an organization dedicated to diversity in music.

Strum,” which Montgomery composed in 2006 and revised several times, was “originally conceived for a quintet of two violins, violas and two cellos, so the voicing is often spread over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive sound,” she said. “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 idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, ‘Strum’ has a narrative that begins with a fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.” Next month, Strum also appears on a program by the Louisville Orchestra, led by progressive maestro and Britt Festival music director Teddy Abrams. And in November, the Eugene Symphony performs her Records from a Vanishing City.

For a young composer whose yesteryear favorites are Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók, expect contemporary fireworks—even if each of her pieces is less than 10 minutes.

We talked to Montgomery by phone from her home in New York before she arrived this August in Oregon for her residency. 

On her compositions

I compose on the piano and on the violin. I sing a lot when I write. Playing the violin unlocks my thinking. I get super depressed when I don’t play.

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

It’s easier to work out the details with the musicians with chamber music as opposed to orchestras. You have limited time, and it can be hectic working with orchestras and large groups. You’re lucky if you get 40 minutes.

On inclusivity in classical music 

Recently there has been a lot of effort by organizations, large and small, to highlight the works of marginalized groups, in particular women composers and women composers of color. At the crux of this time of change is a desire to enrich our art forms with more diverse voices and to enrich our own curiosity in artists’ perspectives. 

There has been a kind of sudden burst of interest that is both refreshing and overwhelming at the same time. It is sometimes hard to know if people are genuinely interested in the content or if they are fulfilling a quota. Either way, the exposure that this music and these composers get, such as Valerie Coleman, Courtney Bryan and Florence Price, is timely and greatly appreciated by artists and audiences.

I just finished a festival in Rochester, N.Y. called Gateways that heavily featured the works of Price, the “godmother” of black American concert music. She was overlooked in her lifetime due to her social status, and now her works are finally receiving deserved recognition, and her significant position in our history is being acknowledged. 

Some of the attention is money-driven (some organizations have been threatened by promises of revoking funding if their programs do not feature works by people of color), so as a composer of color, one always hopes the interest is genuinely about discovering new music. 

[Classical music] is trying to be more inclusive. There’s been a lot of interest in my work. It’s a good moment for me. Whether people are genuinely interested—that’s the tricky part. There’s a surge, an interest in broadening the pool. It’s a positive thing, but awkward sometimes. It’s a change. Audiences are changing. 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. There are many unknowns and I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. In 2019, she was elected to the executive board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

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