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For composer Jessie Montgomery, music is her voice

The coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have created something of a platform for the violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery, whose engrossing work Strum opens TFO’s new season this weekend. Demand for the Juilliard-trained musician’s works in concert halls and online – as well as compositions by other modern African American artists – has nearly doubled, giving her a voice that seemed unimaginable only a year ago.

As orchestras and smaller ensembles slowly return to the public stage, they are bringing with them not just Mozart and Beethoven, but music with an edge, works that reflect artistic response to current events. This has also encouraged groups to explore a wider range of pieces by people such as Montgomery, who at age 39 has an impressive musical portfolio.

Although purely abstract, Strum is part of her effort to contribute to an American sound, at the same time making an impact through the intersection of social justice and the arts. Her commitment to addressing inequity is one reason the New York Philharmonic this year honored her as a featured composer for its Project 19, which marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and a woman’s right to vote.

Montgomery calls music her “connection to the world,’’ and it challenges her to make clear the things she doesn’t understand. Creating a short piece like Strum often is anything but an academic exercise; it often comes from the gut.

“It’s an emotional process in that I have to be willing and able to work creatively and openly, which is very much tied to mood and general pacing of my day,’’ she said. “But if I’m working to convey any particular emotion in the piece, I’m not necessarily feeling that emotion when I’m writing. I think the ebb and flow and emotional expression in the music happen somehow on another plane, through the performer’s interpretation.’’

Montgomery appeared with her group, the Sphinx Virtuosi, in St. Petersburg earlier this year, but as a performer. This week, the focus is on her own music. Hearing one of her original pieces performed by an orchestra – especially a first performance – is often a tense affair because she never knows where things might go.

“To be honest, I get really nervous during premieres,’’ she added. “Usually, if I’ve had a chance to rehearse the piece with players ahead of time, it can ease that anxiety, but I still get excited and nervous as if I’m performing myself!’’

Originally written for string quartet and revised for string orchestra, Strum opens with a compact, sweetly lyrical melody framed by pizzicato strings. Instruments soon swirl to a dance-like tempo, with jarring notes giving way to a spacious harmony. A new idea emerges as the ensemble turns upbeat, dashes off a few piercing harmonics and a thicket of plucked strings at a vigorous pace. The piece comes to rest on a final, muted note.

And that’s part of the challenge of composing a new work – how do you know when to end it?

“This is tricky,’’ she added. “If there are time constraints already placed on the work, I’m somewhat obliged to end rather purposefully. But in general, I feel like I know when the piece is ending. I rarely want to add more to a work horizontally. But I often want to re-write sections or make edits that strengthen the orchestration well after the first performance.’’

Not familiar with Strum? Watch part of it in this video by the Minnesota Orchestra.

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