Few things are more exciting for a young classical musician than a masterclass with a composer. Members of the CMPI Quartet, violinists Sameer Agrawal and Esme Arias-Kim, violist Ella Saputra, and cellist Jan Vargas Nedvetsky, were very fortunate this April to have an opportunity to perform Strum for String Quartet in a masterclass with Jessie Montgomery, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Mead Composer-in-Residence. As Ella said, “It was an honor to be able to play Jessie Montgomery’s own composition for her. I thought it was very insightful and valuable to be able to work with the composer herself and gain a better understanding of her musical intentions.”
In her recent interview with NPR, Ms. Montgomery shared an observation that young classical musicians are seeking out the pieces that are not a part of the traditional classical canon because they speak to them on a more personal level and give them a chance to create something new and different from the previous generation of performers. This is especially true for the young musicians from underrepresented backgrounds who find affirmation in playing music composed by someone like them. One such piece is Strum, one of Ms. Mongomery’s earlier works, a favorite among young musicians and a popular new addition to the chamber programming of pre-college and college ensembles.
Ms. Montgomery’s guiding compositional intention, as quoted in a recent interview, has always been to go for a sound that is a “culmination, like smashing together of different styles and influences,” an exciting quality in the classical piece that is immensely relatable and emotionally accessible to the young performers. Coach of the CMPI Quartet, violinist and CMPI artistic mentor Sang Mee Lee, who has been instrumental in preparing the group for the masterclass, appreciates Ms. Mongomery’s compositional style: “Jessie Montgomery is one of the most interesting voices in the contemporary new music scene. Strum is very fun, intricate, and superbly crafted. It is always wonderful to encounter new music so well constructed, especially for the enduring genre of a string quartet.”
Members of the quartet shared their admiration for Ms. Montgomery’s music. Violist Ella Saputra enjoyed the challenge of the rhythmic intricacy of Strum; violinist Sameer Agrawal liked the unique voicing of the parts passing around in unexpected ways; violinist Esme Arias-Kim appreciated the contrasts of sections with vigorous rhythmic energy following the tranquil and beautiful beginning. Cellist Jan Vargas Nedvetsky found the ensemble aspect of Strum to be especially engaging: “The complex interaction of the four instruments requires intense focus and precise collaboration between the members of the group, and it was an invigorating performance experience.”
During the masterclass the CMPI Quartet played Strum for Ms. Montgomery in Buntrock Hall at Symphony Center. Following the performance Ms. Montgomery joined the young musicians on stage and guided their attention to the specific sections of the piece highlighting her musical intentions. Her instructions were specific and purposeful, and her satisfaction with the students getting it right was palpable. Members of the quartet thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Sameer stated, “It was really fulfilling to work with Jessie Montgomery, as we gained insight into her inspirations and wisdom on Strum, as well as learning about her own journey as a musician and composer.”
This masterclass was followed by a question-and-answer session that was unique in many aspects. Jessie Mongomery is a young composer and an accomplished classically trained violinist. She has vivid memories growing up in an artistic family, surrounded by music, and she enthusiastically shared those memories with young musicians in attendance to encourage their own creative pursuits. Her path into becoming a composer has been a lot like her music – improvisational, intense, and unique – as described in her bio. Drawing on personal experiences, Ms. Montgomery guided the conversation with students along such diverse topics as improvising during chamber rehearsals, finding the melody while walking in the woods, and having jam sessions with friends. She addressed the cognitive effort of composing as being intertwined with that of performing, and that building a new musical phrase is not that different from expressing an already composed melody, emphasizing the stepping stones that can encourage students to try their hand at composition.
Ms. Montgomery shared her own early encounters with composing that began when she was 11 and continued intermittently during her high school and conservatory years, first as the outlets for creative impulses, and later in a more deliberate fashion as she began to see herself primarily as a composer. She recalled how the idea of Strum came to her as she was plucking the violin strings during a break from rehearsing Dvorak’s “American” Quartet while in college. In contrast to the perception of the composer being a lonely figure, Ms. Montgomery repeatedly emphasized the communal nature of the creative work – collaborating in chamber groups, playing with orchestras, and gathering for jam sessions with friends – as the essential experiences informing her compositional process or giving sparks to the new ideas. Ms. Montgomery’s interaction with the audience was generous; her enthusiasm for encouraging creativity and strong sense of individuality in young musicians was palpable. It was especially rewarding to see many CMPI students and families in attendance able to join in such an inspiring conversation.
Following the masterclass performance, the CMPI quartet had several opportunities to put Ms. Montgomery’s advice to good use while playing Strum during the first week of May in pre-concert performances at Symphony Center, while Ms. Montgomery’s Hymn to Everyone was featured in the main concert program. Below is a video of one of these performances.
The masterclass with Jessie Montgomery was immensely rewarding for everyone in attendance – CMPI families, guests, members of the CMPI Quartet, and their coach Ms. Lee. Esme reflected, “Being able to play for Ms. Montgomery was very inspiring, and we all took to heart her feedback and wisdom about the piece. The most meaningful part of this experience was performing and rehearsing with my good friends.”
Coach Ms. Lee summarized the experience: “To have the chance to discover Strum and work on it with such talented students, equally excited to learn and embrace Jessie’s voice, prepare it for the composer herself, and to hear directly and exactly what she has in mind, has been a privilege. Thank you CMPI!”
Image and video credits: Yana Nedvetsky