Kansas City Symphony Performs New Piano Concerto by Jessie Montgomery

Composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery is a rising star in American contemporary classical music. (photo by Jiyang Chen)

The Kansas City Symphony closes their season with a new work by composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery. This is Montgomery’s first piano concerto, performed by the renowned Awadagin Pratt, making his Kansas City Symphony debut.

The concerto, titled “Rounds for solo piano and string orchestra,” is featured on the program along with George Frideric Handel’s historic anthem “Zadok the Priest” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, “Choral,” conducted by Michael Stern. The concert also features the Kansas City Symphony Chorus.

Montgomery’s work is about connection and form. The composer takes inspiration from a variety of sources, bringing these impulses together into patterns, cycles and rhythms.

She draws from a section of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” — “At the still point of the turning world” — as well as the writings of biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber, who proposes a “poetic ecology,” the interconnectedness of all things.

Montgomery described this impulse in the performance notes: “. . . beginning to understand this interconnectedness requires that we slow down, listen and observe both the effect and the opposite effect caused by every single action and moment. I’ve found this is an exercise that lends itself very naturally towards musical gestural possibilities that I explore in the work — action and reaction, dark and light, stagnant and swift.”

Montgomery is a rising star in American contemporary classical music. Her album, “Strum,” was described as “vibrantly inventive.” As a violinist, she was a founding member of the PUBLIQuartet and previously performed with the Catalyst Quartet. She’s been involved with the Sphinx Organization for many years, she was selected for the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19 (which commissioned 19 women composers for the anniversary of the 19th Amendment), and she’s creating a reworked version of Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha.” Montgomery is currently Mead composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony. Clearly, her work is making an impact on what we think of as the “classical canon.”

“Her wonderful music was already making the rounds in a lot of places and getting a lot of attention, for the simple reason that it is so immediately apparent that she is one of the compelling new voices to have emerged in American music,” said Michael Stern, music director for the Kansas City Symphony.

“(Montgomery) is the real deal — an exceptional musician, a wonderful violinist, an advocate for social justice, an educator, a mentor and role model to the next generation of aspiring musicians. Above all, she is a terrifically vital composer, and her music really resonates with me.”

“Rounds” was commissioned by the Art of the Piano Foundation, for Pratt, and the Kansas City Symphony is amongst the consortium of co-commissioners.

Pratt, who has played all over the world, at the White House multiple times, and even on Sesame Street, is professor of piano and artist-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). He’s lauded for his interpretations of canonical works (Beethoven, Bach and Brahms), as well as his dedication to highlighting newer voices. A reviewer for “The Pittsburgh Gazette” wrote, “the piano seemed to sing under his fingers.” He’s also a violinist and conductor. As an educator, Pratt is committed to creating opportunities for young people, recently founding the Nina Simone Piano Competition for young Black American pianists.

The “Rounds” concert had its world premiere in March with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra. The Kansas City Symphony has previously performed Montgomery’s work “Strum” in their Mobile Music Box outreach concerts and “Banner” and “Starburst” in Helzberg Hall. They are also part of the consortium that commissioned her new work “Five Freedom Songs” and will perform that work next year with soprano Julia Bullock.

“I think Jessie (adds) so much to our American music world,” said Stern, “and I love performing her work.”

The Kansas City Symphony performs Jessie Montgomery’s “Rounds” June 24-26 at the Kauffman Center. For more information and tickets, www.kcsymphony.org.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

Leave a Reply