For Jessie Montgomery, growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was clearly a formative experience. When she looks back on her childhood, she sees a period of enviable opportunity and cultural richness. “It was a very careful education,” she says. “I have always had a very eclectic experience with music and art, and it has been a great gift.”
Now those years immersed in a global mix of music and theater have paid off in a high level musical career. At 40, Montgomery has gained a multi-faceted reputation as a violinist, music educator and, above all, a composer who loves to push musical boundaries.
She has had a busy year. In early July, she took over as Mead’s composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and international performances of her music are on the rise. In the UK, this weekend (August 7) marks the first time that one of his works has been heard in an evening main concert at the BBC Proms, when Britain’s National Youth Orchestra plays the very acclaimed Banner. Next weekend (August 15), she is looking forward to an important date at the Edinburgh International Festival.
This last concert rekindles a precious bond. Montgomery To scratch opens a concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop, who is “an incredible support, taking an interest in my work, scheduling it regularly, and I am very grateful to him for bringing this piece to Edinburgh” , says Montgomery.
The playful To scratch, originally a cello quintet but more recently reinvented for string orchestra, teases musicians with unusual techniques, including the strumming of the title. Fun for the audience, one has the impression of rediscovering the energy of Montgomery’s youthful years on the Lower East Side.
It was, she said, a time of rapid change. “The neighborhood had seen a lot of upheaval due to corrupt landlords, so there were a lot of abandoned buildings. It has become an opportunity for artists and other immigrant residents to reform the community and participate in the reconstruction by creating galleries and art spaces.
The Montgomery family got involved in cultural life. “My mother was a poet and playwright, and my father ran a music studio where artists always came in and out,” she says. “I was very lucky, but the neighborhood also had its tough sides, and at one point people didn’t want to come because of the social issues in the neighborhood.
The combination of cultural richness and social challenges is a vital blend that has found its place in Montgomery’s music. While she is keen to stress that much of what she writes is purely abstract, there is a clear common thread of works that convey a social message.
They can be traced back to Banner, the work that is performed at the BBC Proms. It was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based institution dedicated to diversity in the arts, and celebrated the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the US national anthem. Montgomery’s rhapsody on American styles of music, from folk to pop and everything in between, is an exuberant, multicultural anthem for the 21st century.
Other recent works include the Five songs of freedom, exploring the lesser-known spiritualities of the African American people. In 2019, Montgomery was invited to participate in the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19, marking the centenary of the 19th Amendment, when American women won the vote. “My mom wrote the lyrics for the play and it was nice to have a full circle of work together.”
Did she address some of the social issues that interested her parents? “Absolutely,” she said. “When I was growing up I was rebellious to being political because my parents were so rooted. It was their world and I had my world, hanging out on the Lower East Side and playing the violin. But now I’m working on an opera about my great-great-grandfather, who was a bison soldier [in] the black cavalry at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. My mother has a long history of work based on family ties and my project continues to do so, offering a perspective on the progress of blacks in the United States, migration and influence on the military in general.
Montgomery still lives up to a recent hit in upstate New York, albeit of a very different genre. In Montgomery Place Historic Park, next to Bard College’s main campus, Montgomery and choreographer Pam Tanowitz collaborated on I was waiting for the echo of a better day, an outdoor dance commission. The idea was to design the music in relation to the natural environment and it was, says Montgomery, “a challenge in the face of the weather, but I’m very proud of it.”
Also slated for performance, but postponed due to the pandemic, is a reshuffle of Treemonisha, the 1911 opera by American composer Scott Joplin set in a former slave plantation in Arkansas. Full of catchy ragtime tunes, Joplin’s opera never reached the popularity it might have attained and the intention is to complete its rather fragile story by exploring the characters’ connections to their African roots. The reinvented Treemonisha appears to be one of the earliest events in Montgomery’s loaded diary.
“I have no specific idea where I want the music to go,” she says. “It’s going where it’s going. Creative license for artists is important because we should all be free to write whatever suits our personal expression. What I would really like to see is that people come to concerts excited about new ideas. Being open to music and participating in it live is the most uplifting experience.
‘Banner’ will be performed at the BBC Proms on August 7th. bbc.co.uk/proms
‘Strum’ will be performed at the Edinburgh International Festival on August 15th, eif.co.uk
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