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Composer Jessie Montgomery Makes Tanglewood Debut Saturday With “Starburst”

A Black woman stands in front of a red wall
Boston Symphony Orchestra

On Saturday, composer Jessie Montgomery makes her Tanglewood debut with the performance of her piece “Starburst.” Born and raised on the Lower East Side in the 1980s, Montgomery – also a violinist and educator – has seen her work performed across the United States and abroad. Recipient of the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation, she was selected by the New York Philharmonic to participate in its 2020 celebration of the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment – which prohibited denying the right to vote based on sex – called Project 19. WAMC spoke with Montgomery about “Starburst,” and about her efforts to increase the visibility of people of color in the classical music community.

MONTGOMERY: I wrote it originally for it was written for the Sphinx Virtuosi, which is a touring chamber orchestra that is run by the Sphinx Organization in Detroit. The piece is meant to feature all of the fun and dazzling things that strings can do, especially when you have full orchestra size of them. I had this idea of stars exploding in space, because I thought that was a really exciting gestural idea. And so I wanted to, I knew that there was going to offer a lot of opportunities for special colors and special, unexpected combinations of colors and gestures within the ensemble to sort of create that sense of explosion and quick moving light. It's really meant to be fun in a dazzling kind of opener type of fanfare, I suppose you could say, that hopefully captures that sense of delight and excitement.

WAMC: What inspired the composition?

Mainly, the people that I was writing for at the time, the ensemble is writing for. I knew sort of what their temperament was. So I definitely use that as an inspiration, the temperament of that ensemble being like, a lot of energy. And it was going to be our first tour that season where we were not going to have a conductor. So it was the sense that each voice is really necessary, in order for the whole thing to come together, and each- There's a lot of divisi parts where there are individual sections, or individuals within the orchestra, that will have to lead certain transitions and gestures. So with that in mind, that was, those were some of the guiding forces and ideas behind the sort of energy of the piece.

You've been involved with the sings organization for over 20 years now? Do you describe what they do, and then what's drawn you to work with them for so long?

Sphinx is an incredible organization that has been committed to diversity within classical music, specifically offering professional opportunities for Black and Latinx string players. And over the years, they have included other collaborators and ambassadors, musical ambassadors, and also administrative ambassadors, in all different areas of music, actually, not just within classical music, who have worked towards just creating more opportunities and more visibility for Black and Latinx artists within the United States and also abroad. So this has been an incredible mission. I was a laureate in their competition when I was first a teenager. And then I've been participated in the competition several years beyond that, and have also taught at some of their summer programs. And I've also been a member of the Catalyst Quartet, one of their premier ensembles that was formed within the Sphinx Organization, and also performed with Sphinx Virtuosi, etcetera. So I've had a lot of interaction with the organization. I also was very generously given a Sphinx Medal of Excellence, which is one of their largest awards and honors that they offer within the organization. So it's been a very, very long history of support. And they have just been an incredible force throughout my career and also those of many of my colleagues. So I just continue to be impressed by the work that they're doing.

It strikes me that their mission hits on this interesting tension in the classical world- A lot of associations of classical music are that of exclusivity, of it being an elite art form. Obviously, the work that the organization does is trying to crack open that concept. Can you speak to your own experiences with negotiating that as a classical composer and performer?

You know, one of the things that I think is specifically remarkable about the Sphinx Organization is that they sort of take on this attitude that yes, there needs to be more visibility for Black and Latinx musicians. But once you actually put everyone together, it's becomes very, very clear that there are so many people participating in classical music who traditionally have not been given the spotlight. And it's such an incredible pool of talent and participation, that I think that that realization is what's most important, I think, for the rest of the industry to sort of to observe and recognize. And that from there, these folks are not, like, new to the scene that we have been working and doing, participating in classical music in various forms for a very, very long time. I just- I think it's a wonderful moment that we're confronting the reality of that and hopefully continuing to open doors and create more participation within our community for anyone who's able and willing and wants to participate.

Jessie, you've talked about how improvisation plays a role in your compositions, can you break down for me how that vein of creativity can play into a structured piece?

Yeah, I love the idea of music that is bending and flexing. I do have a very strong desire for structure and order within my music. But then I also like to play against that. So that's where the improvisation comes in, where suddenly something that was really organized and structured now is, like, totally let loose and allows for the musicians to sort of put their own voice into it. And not just in their sound, but in the kinds of musical gestures and things that they might want to offer to the piece. And so I just, I love the dialogue between those two things. That's what I, one of the ways in which I sort of think of my music as a continually adapting entity.

What else is coming up for you this year, Jessie?

I'm really looking forward to, there's going to be a wonderful premiere this August at Sun Valley Music Festival with Julia Bullock, soprano. They're going to be doing- This is going to be a premiere of a work called ‘A History of Persistent Voice’ that we have been collaborating on for a couple of years now. And this premiere is going to be a new, updated revised version of that work, which includes a series of works, including my ‘Five Freedom Songs’ they're called, which are arrangements of spirituals for strings, percussion and voice. And then works by other composers Allison Loggins-Hull and Courtney Bryan and Tanya León that's going to be premiering in the first week of August at the Sun Valley Music Festival. There's also going to be some performances this summer with several orchestras in the UK, actually. Some youth orchestra festivals. One in particular is with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, is going to be playing ‘Records From a Vanishing City,’ and another piece of mine, ‘Soul Force,’ and another one, ‘Banner.’ So they're actually going to be playing a series of my works all happening this summer at Saffron Hall and Royal Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall also this summer. So there's a lot of- it’s nice, UK activity this summer. So it's pretty exciting.

Lastly, Jessie, what is on your summer playlist? What are you listening to this summer?

Ah, I am listening to a really amazing- There's this really amazing release that just came out of a very good friend of mine named Gabe Cabezas and his work with composer Gabriella Smith. They have this amazing album that they did called ‘Lost Coast,’ which is all solo cello and voice but sort of crafted in this very, very expansive kind of collage, just- And it's like it's so impressive that it's just this collaboration between the two of them, but it takes on, it really feels like it's almost like there's an entire ensemble playing these pieces and it's just a beautifully crafted album. So I've been listening to that a lot. And I also have another really great album by a very dear friend of mine, Curtis Stewart, violinist and also professor at the Juilliard School. He just put out incredible album called ‘Of Power,’ which expresses and explores the position and points of view sort of that we've all been facing this year of who's in power and who deserves to have power and what are the definitions of freedom and justice and just exploring that through music and a really generous, generous way that I think brings people into a really nice open sort of dialogue with that with his material. So I think that’s- Those are two that are really special.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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