When naming the Mead Composer Residency, the Chicago Symphony doesn’t expect its appointees to take the “guest” part seriously. Many move in and out, structuring their visits around MusicNOW concerts and NGO commissions, the contemporary music series they curate.
But last year, halfway through her three-year residency, Jessie Montgomery moved out of the Lower East Side apartment where she grew up in Chicago to relocate. Her mother, Robbie McCauley, was an actress and playwright who died in 2021; his father, Edward Montgomery, is a jazz musician who occasionally accompanies him to NGO meetings. Montgomery first picked up the violin at New York’s Third Street Music School Settlement, a few blocks from where he lived; he later went to Juilliard, then NYU, and was a member of the PUBLIQuartet and the Catalyst Quartet.
But these days, Chicago makes sense for Montgomery, now 42 and among the most enthusiastic composers of his generation. Many of his closest collaborators, such as violinist Caitlin Edwards and cellist Tahirah Whittington, live here; He plays in the all-black chamber organization D-Composed and the new music collective Fulcrum Point, both of which are made up of musicians. The MusicNOW program has attracted composer-performer artists and welcomed Chicago-born talents like cellists, a label strangely rare in today’s classical music landscape and one that violin owner Montgomery proudly wears. Gabriel Cabezas and composer Elijah Daniel Smith.
Montgomery lives in Pilsen, which has a vibrant arts scene and public spirit that reflects the Lower East Side of his youth. Indeed, in his eyes, most of Chicago is.
“It feels like there’s a little bit more outreach, a little bit more ability to say, ‘Hey, let’s do this project,’ and get us to do it without too many obstacles,” Montgomery says. “I’m at a point in my career and life where I can choose the projects I want to do. Being here has given me the space and clarity to understand what this will look like in the next five years. It doesn’t feel like you’re always getting ready to walk out the door.
It became increasingly important for Montgomery to establish roots in a bastion of Black art and creativity like Chicago. Following the murder of George Floyd, his commissions and performances increased exponentially as classical music organizations across the country discovered racism overnight. He went into overdrive, then writer’s block.
To process this, Montgomery joined a group chat with other Black composers. They first called themselves Les Six, in reference to the nickname given to a cadre of Francophone composers of the 20th century; With the addition of composer Carlos Simon, they are now Blacknificent 7. With Montgomery’s move, almost half of the collective is now located here: Shawn Okpebholo Damien Geter, a versatile composer, singer and conductor who teaches at Wheaton College in the western suburbs, is currently producing the landmark Loving v. He is working on an opera adaptation of the story of the Virginia case.
The first MusicNOW concert of the season, on December 3, introduced Blacknificent 7 as a “composer collective” for the first time, with Montgomery and Simon improvising interludes for violin and piano. It broke ticket sales records for the last five years for the MusicNOW series.
“One of Jessie’s superpowers is being a curator and producer. His creativity and imagination were clearly visible even in this Blacknificent 7 concert: he chose the sequence, thought of the breaks and responded (in his improvisations) to the pieces,” says Okpebholo. “It’s not just the way Carlos and Jessie compose. “This is also a nod to our Black improv history.”
Montgomery’s tenure as CSO’s composer-in-residence ends this season. Then count on Chicago to hear more from him beyond the 200 blocks of Southern Michigan. Third Coast Percussion Montgomery’s features In May, he was commissioned as both composer and violin soloist. That same month, CSO principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh debuts a new percussion concerto by Montgomery; Yeh was impressed by his writing about percussion in “Hymn for All,” a CSO commission released by the orchestra’s record label in 2021, and wanted to hear more. (“This is my year of percussion,” jokes Montgomery.) Montgomery is also in talks with cutting-edge Ensemble Dal Niente for future projects and is trying to figure out what’s next for Blacknificent 7. 3 MusicNOW shows.
“What we saw in terms of audience participation showed an interest — a truly enthusiastic interest — in how Black musicians were contributing to classical music,” Montgomery says. “People didn’t quite know what kind of music they were going to get; they just knew it would be something they’d never heard of before. Trust was really in the culture.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.
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