Your NPR news source
SYMPHONY-113023-20.jpg

Since being appointed the composer in residence at the CSO, Jessie Montgomery’s music has popped up on classical and new music programs across the city. The final collaborations of her CSO residency happen this week.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Exit CSO composer in residence. Enter Jessie Montgomery, Chicago’s most in-demand classical collaborator.

On Thursday, the orchestra will perform a final work from Montgomery — the grace note on her wildly prolific three-year run as the city’s adopted new-music superstar.

The composer Jessie Montgomery is sitting in the studio of Third Coast Percussion, the Grammy-winning percussion quartet based in Chicago, workshopping a piece for next season. The high-ceilinged room is a wonder emporium of percussion instruments, with shelving on every wall housing drums, bells, chimes, a vanishing-point array of triangles. Several bulky keyboard percussion instruments line up to form aisles.

Montgomery has brought a few licks to the workshop for play-throughs and experimentation. For the day’s first musical sandbox, the four percussionists spread out, Sean Connors on drum kit and the other three on vibraphones. They let loose into the rough cut — already playing it with impressive precision and style — and strike an aesthetic that sways between a Steve Reich minimalism and a nightclub kind of jazz.

Connors switches to drumming with his hands, introducing a resonant box, and the jazz-club atmosphere recedes. They run it a few times, upping the speed toward where Montgomery imagines performance tempo to be.

“Fun.” “Awesome groove.” “Almost like Morse code.”

Connors slaps a spiral cymbal that rings out over the texture for several beats, and Montgomery yelps with delight. It’s too much, but it’s entertaining. “Sorry — I’ve never hit it with my hand before,” Connors says.

***

Scenes like this one have been playing out all over town for the past three years, while Montgomery has been serving as the composer in residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. During her time in the position, the classical music community in Chicago, both at the CSO and more broadly, has embraced her like no other composer in residence of recent memory. For a field often justly accused of having its eyes on the past, of equating new with esoteric, the lovefest is a rare and special thing.

Since her appointment in the spring of 2021, Montgomery’s music has popped up like wildflowers on classical and new music programs locally. In the 2023-24 season now ending, here are just some of the local groups that have played her work: the CSO, the Chicago Philharmonic, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, Elgin Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Music Chicago, D-Composed, Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Civitas Ensemble. The Grant Park Music Festival and Ravinia have both programmed works by Montgomery into their summer seasons.

“I’ve heard more of my music performed in Chicago than anywhere ever,” Montgomery says.

CSO20240530_186.jpg

Jessie Montgomery, center, is congratulated by Conductor Manfred Honeck (left) and CSO Principal Percussion Cynthia Yeh (right).

Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography

The centerpiece of the CSO residency was three major commissions, one per season. The third and final, Procession, is a percussion concerto written for the CSO’s principal percussionist, Cynthia Yeh. It premiered on May 30.

Early in her CSO tenure, Montgomery accepted a request from Yeh to write her a concerto. They went through the percussion room and talked out possible instrumentations. One movement settled on a two-position setup where Yeh moves from a drum cluster — including an old-school marching-band drum from Yeh’s own collection, branded “Post 246, American Legion, Moline, Illinois” — to a spot with a vibraphone in front of her and a glockenspiel to her right, holding three vibraphone mallets and one glock mallet.

Then they discussed what was humanly possible. Yeh told Montgomery, “I can’t hold, like, eight mallets in my hands.” Then, the percussionist offered solutions through changes to the composition — dropping notes or short sections of music, pointing out runs that didn’t work. “She was just open to whatever changes I suggested,” Yeh says.

Montgomery has a talent for mining the expertise of others to get the effects she wants, a combination of receptivity and discernment. During the rehearsal of Procession, the conductor, Manfred Honeck, cut off the orchestra at one point because he couldn’t hear a sound Montgomery requested from the brass; she had instructed them to remove the mouthpieces of their instruments and blow through the rest of the instrument to get a windy sound.

One of the trombonists suggested reversing the mouthpiece instead, which did the trick. “First time anyone ever told a trombone to play louder,” one of them said.

***

The concerto seems like it would be the final fortissimo for Montgomery’s residency, but there’s a coda. In concerts June 13 to 15, the violinist Joshua Bell presents his project The Elements, where he commissioned an all-star lineup of composers, each to write one movement of a five-movement piece. In addition to Montgomery, the murderer’s row consists of Kevin Puts (composer of the opera version of The Hours); Edgar Meyer (seven-time Grammy winner and Goat Rodeo collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma); Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking, last month’s Before It All Goes Dark); and Jennifer Higdon (opera version of Cold Mountain).

It’s an unusual approach for classical music, one that seems likely to yield a Mr. Potato Head of a piece, scattered parts that don’t form a coherent whole. Not so, Montgomery says — the five composers, all American, share a sort of Americanness in their styles. They got on calls to talk about flow and mood. For Montgomery, the youngest by a decade, the collaboration also offered a chance to develop relationships with renowned colleagues.

“Some of these people are, like, idols,” she says. “I got to have an hour-and-a-half-long conversation with Edgar Meyer about his attitudes about music. I was like, ‘When would that have otherwise happened?’ ”

***

66th Annual Grammy Awards - Show

Jessie Montgomery won the 2024 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for her piece Rounds.

Courtesy of Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

As the inclusion in Bell’s stable of composers suggests, it isn’t just Chicago celebrating Montgomery. She was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year for 2023. She won the 2024 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for her piece Rounds, for solo piano and string orchestra. Her website lists upcoming performances of her music in Norway, Finland, Japan, Scotland and across the United States.

And she’s working on an opera, under the aegis of the Metropolitan Opera / Lincoln Center New Works Program, a project she can turn more attention to now that the CSO residency is ending. She plans for the as-yet-untitled work to tell the story of her great-great-grandfather, who was a Buffalo Soldier, a Black military man serving on the American frontier in the mid-19th century. Procession fed into her opera process. “There are some things orchestration-wise that are a bit theatrical in this one, because I’ve had this big opera in mind,” she says. “I almost called it an opera for percussion.”

Even though Montgomery relocated here during the CSO residency, now that it’s ending she has decided to remain in Pilsen, where she lives. She will continue the Young Composers Initiative she launched with the CSO, mentoring high-school-age composers and shepherding works of theirs to public performance.

“Chicago is a place where there’s a real hunger and a real interest for new works,” she says. “Anytime I’ve ever had a new piece performed [here], I get a lot of immediate feedback from the audience, which is really great. Mostly positive, luckily. Usually the people have only nice things to say, but also interesting critique.”

It feels like a remarkable choice for someone whose music has often referenced her upbringing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But her dad, Ed, now lives in Germany, and her mother passed away in 2021, an event that informed another of her major CSO commissions, Hymn for Everyone.

She now has a whole network here. Several of the composers in her collective, the Blacknificent 7, are based here, and all these local groups playing her music benefit from her proximity.

***

Back in the Third Coast Percussion studio, the next section of the piece proves harder to orchestrate.

Montgomery has brought in an audio track layering recorded sounds, where the quartet finds matching timbres for a bass beat and a kind of skittering bitstream. But a descending-pitch violin bow-tapping sound Montgomery likens to melting is harder to peg. They try mallet handles on the vibraphone, then add cowbells. There are dozens — maybe hundreds — of instruments in the room to experiment with, and even those aren’t the limit.

“There’s millions of percussion instruments,” says David Skidmore, a member of the quartet. “Absolutely every object in the entire world — if it makes a sound that you like, it’s a percussion instrument. So it can be kind of paralyzing.”

On Study No. 1, Montgomery’s first percussion-ensemble piece, which had its local premiere in early May, Third Coast Percussion suggested a quirky instrument they had in their arsenal: tom-toms with holes drilled in the side. A piece of rubber tubing wedged into the hole runs to the mouth of the performer, who can change the pitch of the drum by blowing into its middle to raise the pressure. It wound up being one of the key sounds of the piece.

“It’s a technique that we learned from Glenn Kotche,” Skidmore says, referring to the composer-percussionist most famous as the drummer for Wilco. “It’s one of these weird special techniques that gets passed from one drummer to the next. To my knowledge, the two pieces where we’ve implemented that sort of sound are the only two in the ‘classical’ percussion-ensemble repertoire.”

As the quartet and composer wrap the workshop and make plans for another session in August, they talk through the performances scheduled. The piece premieres in Washington, D.C. in December, at Dumbarton Oaks.

The next month, the piece comes to Montgomery’s adopted hometown — or really, a neighboring suburb — at Northwestern’s Winter Chamber Music Festival in January.

“That’s when I’ll see it,” Montgomery says.

If you go: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Joshua Bell present The Elements on June 13, 14 and 15 at Symphony Center. Tickets from $35.


Graham Meyer is a Chicago-based arts journalist.

Want more culture news in your inbox every week? Subscribe to Green Room, a newsletter from WBEZ’s Arts & Culture desk.

The Latest
Art
Experiencing a new augmented reality art installation in the park requires a mobile phone — and extra patience.
Whether you’re headed to Pitchfork or just craving new music, this playlist will introduce something fresh into your rotation.
The Oak Park-raised poet and folk singer on her hometown return, musical influences and the best local tacos.

A new study from Enrich Chicago shows a shifting landscape for arts groups that were buoyed by COVID-19 relief dollars.

The sweeping musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theater strives to be both epic and intimate in its staging of the classic J.R.R. Tolkien novels.