CSO Mead Composer Jessie Montgomery Strikes Chord Within the Classical Academy

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Mead Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery (Credit: Todd Rosenberg 2021).

From Grammy win to inspiring future talent, Jesse Montgomery reflects on her tenure as CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence and the impact of her groundbreaking work.

Jessie Montgomery was surprised to hear her name called during the 2024 Grammys for the Best Contemporary Classical Composition category.

“I was genuinely surprised because it was my first nomination and such a huge category and among some composers that I have admired throughout my time.”

Montgomery’s first Grammy win is the culmination of her three years as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Mead Composer-in-Residence. Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti appointed her in April 2021 and officially began her tenure in July of that year. 

Now, that three-year appointment draws to a close with two spring CSO programs featuring premieres of her music. Marking the third and final orchestral commission of her tenure, Procession (2024), a concerto for CSO Principal Percussion Cynthia Yeh, received its world premiere performances from Yeh and the orchestra under Manfred Honeck’s leadership.

In two weeks, violinist Joshua Bell will join the CSO for the Chicago premiere of Montgomery’s “Space” as part of The Elements (2023), his acclaimed five-movement commissioning project, June 13–15.

For Montgomery, she is maintaining a familial legacy in the arts, from a mother who was a playwright and actress and father who was a musician and ran a music studio. She is making the most of one of the few unique opportunities available to composers across the globe. 

A Black Woman Composer Creating Visibility and Opportunity

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Mead Composer in Residence Jessie Montgomery

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Mead Composer in Residence Jessie Montgomery (Credit: Todd Rosenberg 2021)

Jessie’s appointment came a year after the dust settled from the George Floyd uprisings. 

In 2020, when industries across the spectrum made declarations to increase Black representation, the classical music community followed suit. 

“Unfortunately, what the George Floyd moment did, for better and worse, was highlight the incompletion of the work of equality.” 

As Composer-in-Residence, Montgomery is the second Black woman to have her work performed in Symphony Hall. The first was Florence Price in 1933. 

Consequently, Montgomery sees her appointment and Grammy award, both selected by her peers, as a commitment to continue “…to create visibility, to create more opportunities, more equality, more acknowledgment for Black people, women, in the arts.” 

Jessie shares, “It’s an acknowledgment that we all agree that this continues to be important. This continues to be a value that we want to support.”

Despite the progress made, Jessie is confident that her music can “stand out aside from identity and all these politics.” 

As she reflects, “It’s hard. Sometimes, you want to separate identity from the work, but you can’t always do that. I think in music, it’s a little easier to do. [Well] It’s not easier, but the medium doesn’t necessarily always require the identity piece in order for it to exist.”

However, Montgomery is happy to be in a position where her work and identity align.

“But I think in this case, based on the trend of my career, it feels like those two things are really aligned. And I’m actually, I’m happy to be in that position and to represent in that way.”

Young Composer’s Initiative: Mentoring the Next Generation

During her residency, Montgomery developed the Young Composer’s Initiative to cultivate a pipeline of young composers of color. During each year of the program, she has mentored Chicago-area teen composition students, all of whom received full scholarships to participate. 

“The YCI program is based on a program that I was part of in New York way back when. It was called the Composer’s Apprentice Program at Lincoln Center. And these kinds of specific opportunities are so important for young artists.” 

While in the program, “[participants] have access to the incredible musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They’re having experiences that sort of mimic professional experiences that they may encounter later in life.”

For Montgomery, she understands how exceptional it is to be selected for this residency and have the career she has. 

On one hand, she “thinks it’s random, sometimes,” but then recognizes that it requires more from her. 

Being in this position, I have a special opportunity and responsibility to take full advantage of this and to continue to work and shape my career in a way where I can actually be the most effective contributor in my art.”

In this way, Jessie lays the foundation for her hopes: “that I can be an example of what’s possible for others.” 


In honor of Black Music Month, The Chicago Defender is sharing stories that honor, amplify and highlight our contributions to music, spotlighting individuals from our city and beyond. 

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