The Violin Channel recently caught up with American violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery – the recent recipient of the 2020 Sphinx Organization ‘Medal of Excellence’.
The Sphinx Organization is a US non-profit organization dedicated to the development of young American Black and Latin classical musicians.
Congratulations Jesse. Please tell us a little about yourself?
”I am a composer and violinist, born and raised in New York City.
My compositions more recently have been guided by both personal and social justice narratives, though my music in a broader sense is greatly inspired by folk idioms and other forms of popular song.
I live and work now in Princeton, NJ where I am working toward my PhD in composition.”
How does it feel to be the recipient of a prestigious Sphinx Organization ‘Medal of Excellence’?
”This is an extremely exciting moment! I have been affiliated with Sphinx for many years now, and have served many roles as an artist within the organization.
They have been a tremendous and invaluable support to me for this time.
I am so honored to be recognized in this capacity and offered even more of an opportunity to grow and change as a performer and composer.”
What has been your association with the Sphinx Organization? And how important is the work they are doing to support musicians and cultural entrepreneurs of color?
”I began my relationship with Sphinx as a junior division competitor (some) years ago, and have since been a two-time laureate in the senior division, taught at the Sphinx Performance Academy, have been Composer-in-Residence with the Sphinx Virtuosi, a member of the Catalyst Quartet, and served on various panels for their annual conference.
I cannot stress enough how important this organization has been for me and for all of the musicians they have served and continue to serve.
My community has grown because of their work, and it has been inspiring to communities outside of the Sphinx network change and be inspired to change their views on who deserves what opportunities in classical music.
I see things becoming more equalized in small pockets of our field–little by little, the shift is happening.”
What will you use the $50,000 grant towards?
”Not telling yet! (Just kidding…).
I have projects in mind that have only been seedlings of ideas so far–one of which is to create my own ensemble collective wherein I can workshop my pieces and explore more practices in seamless transitions between composed and improvised music.
I am also working on a long term project to write an oratorio about my great-grandfather, Sgt. William McCauley who was a Buffalo Soldier who fought in WWI, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican War and also worked on building the Panama Canal and U.S. Railroads.
His story both unique and also totally shared among many — learning more about him has brought me to a deeper understanding of my place in time and aspirations going forward, which I hope has a common effect on others as well.”
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
”Definitely one of the highlights has been having the opportunity to play in the Silkroad Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma, my first time being in 2016.
Not only was it a dream to be able to perform along-side one of the greatest musicians alive, but he’s not the only one!
The Silkroad Ensemble is teeming with expert genius musicians from all over the world.
When I came to my first rehearsal with them, I felt like my world was opening up and that my musical horizons were expanding by the minute.
My first week with them was boundlessly exciting and educational.
Another really big moment was when the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra premiered Records from A Vanishing City at Carnegie Hall in 2016 (that was a big year!).
As a New Yorker, growing up hearing Orpheus, it was an incredible way to come full circle and land in that spot, introducing my own music to the audience.
I felt things were coming full circle for me and that gave me a lot of confidence to keep striving as a composer.”
Who have been your most influential mentors and inspirations?
”This is a big list and there isn’t enough room on the page to discuss them all, but absolutely, my violin teachers: Sally Thomas, Ann Setzer, Lynelle Smith and Alice Kanack. I think of them basically every time I practice! (Thank you!)
The skills and the love of learning that they all taught stay with me everywhere I go.
Whenever I find myself focusing on the beautiful minutiae involved in playing the violin, there is always some reminder that pops into my head, some phrase or explanation that gets traced back to one of my lessons. I can almost see them calmly directing me to understand.
I’ll never forget Ms. Thomas saying to me one time, in her direct and concise way, where you knew that what you just heard was something you would need to consider over a very long time
“There is a lot to learn in studying the violin. It’s not just about ‘this’ [miming a violin posture]”.
She taught patience, attention to detail, and assertiveness.”
What important piece of advice have you learned from your mentors that you’d like to pass on?
”One of my best friends and mentors is Sebastian Ruth, the founder of Community MusicWorks in Providence.
I’ll never forget the moment he said to me (after having “caught” me mid musical thought in the barn during a residence at Greenwood Music camp) “You really seem charged up by composing! It looks like you should probably keep doing that!”
It was a simple acknowledgment from a friend but also a reminder that whatever thing brings a spark into your eyes, whatever motivates you to take time to create and in whichever form, that’s where you should continue to go.”