Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence On Making Music for the Next Generation

Since she was 4 years old, Jessie Montgomery has found solace in music.

“Music has always been for me a way out or a way through. For my whole life,” Jessie Montgomery says. “Music is a place where you can let your thoughts just go. You’re there to be quiet and listen and be in the space of the sound and let it wash over you. It can be very therapeutic and very stimulating.”

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By age 11, Montgomery had composed her first piece. What she’s learned since then is what led her to the CSO, where she is the Mead Composer-in-Residence, a role she took on last fall.

“It is an incredible opportunity right now to be a part of this community and to bring my experience as a musician, as a violinist, as a composer, as an advocate for diversity in classical music,” Montgomery says.  

Some of Montgomery’s pieces include “Strum”, “Hymn for Everyone” and “Overture.” It’s because of her work as a violinist in other orchestras that she learned to compose for other instruments.

“In order to learn how to write for the symphony, I had to study scores by composers that I loved, look at what part is playing what. Then recall and remember what it feels like to sit in an orchestra and to hear which sounds are coming from where,” Montgomery said. “‘Overture’ performed on May 23rd is unique in that the orchestra is all in unison, playing in rhythm the entire time, except for at one point they do split. And there’s two sections doing two different things. But essentially, it’s the whole orchestra breathing this one rhythmic gesture together. That’s what I also played with in terms of orchestration … how can I get the most resonance with this ensemble?”

Montgomery’s works have also been played by the next generation of contemporary classical musicians, students with the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative.

“That’s really the point of what I do,” Montgomery says. “I make music so it can transfer beyond the time that I’m here. It’s just affirming to have that exchange with young people in general.”

As her residency ends, Montgomery says she will continue to make music, as both a composer and violinist, with one goal in mind.

“I want people to take away  — whatever they come in with — that they have a new perspective on music, that they feel they’ve participated in something special,” Montgomery said. “There’s no right way to hear music. That’s ultimately what we do as composers. We’re trying to create a space for people to both create something that they feel good about but have a new open-minded experience for the audience.”

Jessie Montgomery’s “Overture” debuts at the Harris Theater Monday, May 23. Tickets start at $20.

Note: The headline of this story was updated May 17 to reflect that Montgomery is continuing with the CSO.

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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