Born 1981 in New York City, NY
Jesse Montgomery is a contemporary American composer, violinist, and educator whose work includes solo, chamber, vocal, and orchestral works. The Washington Post has described her work as “turbulent, wildly colorful, and exploding with life.”
Montgomery, who frequently performs as a violinist, began studying violin at the Third Street Music School. She grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where her father, a musician who managed a music studio, and her mother, a theater artist and storyteller, were active in the culture of the local community, which gave her formative experiences in performance, education, and advocacy. Throughout her childhood, she was surrounded by many different kinds of music, which have informed her work: African-American spirituals, civil rights anthems, and modern jazz among them. She completed her education at the Juilliard School and New York University.
For twenty years, Montgomery has been affiliated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports young African-American and Latinx string players; she has served as Composer-in-Residence for the Albany Symphony and for the Sphinx Virtuosi. She is a founding member of the PUBLIQuartet and member of the Catalyst Quartet; she also has regularly appeared with the Silkroad Ensemble and the Sphinx Virtuosi. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra selected her as a featured composer for their Project 19, which marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting equal voting rights to women in the United States.
Starburst was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization and was premiered by Sphinx Virtuosi in 2012. This short piece was originally scored for string orchestra. About it, Montgomery writes: “This brief one-movement work for string orchestra is a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape. A common definition of a starburst: ‘the rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly’ lends itself almost literally to the nature of the performing ensemble who premieres the work, The Sphinx Virtuosi, and I wrote the piece with their dynamic in mind.”
Symphony No. 1 in C Major
Born October 25, 1838, in Paris; died June 3, 1875, in Bougival, France
Bizet composed this Symphony in C Major when he was only seventeen and still a student at the Paris Conservatory. It has a youthful feel, rich in both freshness and charm. He composed it in 1855, but then allowed it to disappear, unperformed, into the archives of the Conservatory. It was not rediscovered until 1933 and was first performed on February 26, 1935, in Basel, under the direction of Felix Weingartner, who prepared the first edition for publication that year.
Bizet’s symphony opens, Allegro vivo, with a brief, sturdy rhythmic subject that is followed by a relaxed, placid second subject highlighting oboes and flutes. The second movement, Adagio, begins with an introduction that uses an accompanying figure derived from the rhythmic subject of the first movement. The main body of the movement is a haunting and lovely song for solo oboe; it has an interesting slow fugal central section, based on the figure that accompanies the introduction. The third movement, a scherzo, Allegro vivace, begins with a spirited rhythmic first theme. In the central trio section, the thematic material is placed over a rustic sounding drone bass accompaniment. The finale, also Allegro vivace, is a sprightly construction with perpetual-motion and march-like passages that lead to the second subject, a soaring lyrical melody of great beauty. The symphony concludes with a display of colorful virtuosity.
The score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, all in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61
Born February 3, 1809, in Hamburg; died November 4, 1847, in Leipzig
When Felix Mendelssohn was a teenager, Shakespeare’s plays were becoming very popular in Germany in translations by a relative of the Mendelssohn family. In the summer of 1826, when he was seventeen, he and his sister Fanny spent many afternoons in the garden of their Berlin home reading Shakespeare aloud and sometimes acting out the roles. They were especially captivated by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a complicated fairy tale that is a rare combination of high poetic beauty and low comedy.
In July and August, the young composer wrote a brilliant piece that is a perfect reflection of these qualities; he called it A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. In its first version, the work was a piano duet that he and Fanny played. In December, he orchestrated it, and in February, the work had its premiere at a symphonic concert.
Many years later, in 1843, King William IV asked Mendelssohn to write incidental music to be played during a theatrical performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the theater of his new palace. For the composer, the first performance of the work, which he conducted on October 14 of that year, was not a happy experience. The royal guests insisted on long intermissions, which they turned into noisy social gatherings, completely destroying the atmosphere Mendelssohn intended his music to create in the theater.
One of the great marvels of Mendelssohn’s genius is the perfect match, in style and spirit, of the Overture he wrote when he was seventeen and the music he wrote for the play when he was exactly twice that age. The match that the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes to his earlier Overture springs from the way that Mendelssohn was able to mine his own Overture for ideas, and in the subtle relationships he then created between its elements and the play itself. Asked by his publishers, the composer recalled how he had written A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It is impossible for me to outline. . . the sequence of ideas that gave rise to the composition . . .. It follows the play closely, however, so that it may be very proper to indicate the outstanding situations of the drama in order that the audience may have Shakespeare in mind or form an idea of the piece. I think it should be enough to point out that the fairy rulers, Oberon and Titania, appear throughout the play with all their people . . .. At the end, after everything has been settled satisfactorily and the principal players have joyfully left the stage, the elves follow them, bless the house and disappear with the dawn. So the play ends. . ..”
Mendelssohn composed music not only for the Shakespearean songs in the play, but also for the substantial entr’actes and he created long stretches of background music as well as dances, marches, and fanfares. There are twelve numbers in all in addition to the Overture. The lively Scherzo with its spirited flute solo is a delightful portrait of Puck, who makes his first appearance soon after the curtain rises before Act II. It is the first of the fairy scenes, written in a loose sonata form. It has much the same character of impishness that the Overture has, except that in this section the woodwinds begin the thematic statement, and the strings initiate the second thematic exposition. The next section is “Over the hill, over the Dale,” followed by the “March of the Fairies” in which Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, come on stage to light and airy music. The fourth section is a song with chorus, “You Spotted Snakes with Double Tongue,” which is, perhaps surprisingly, a lullaby. In Act II, Scene 2, Titania lies down in the woods and asks her attendants to sing her to sleep. They guard her rest with this song, followed by the slow, “What thou see’st when thou dost wake” and the Allegro, “Help me Lysander, help me!”
When Oberon and Puck cast spells that will make Titania fall in love with the grotesque Bottom and end Lysander’s love for Hermia, the passionate Intermezzo, “On the ground sleep sound” between Acts II and III is played. The following Nocturne is an interlude between Acts III and IV. The four young lovers, their relationships confused by fairy magic, fall asleep in the woods. Puck pours a magic potion on Lysander’s eyes that is instrumental in bringing the couples together again. Oberon then releases his Queen from her enchanted dream. This section has distinctive solo passages for the French horns, enriched by the addition of the bassoons and the clarinets. The famous Wedding March, which begins with a processional, introduces Act V and the celebration of the triple wedding of Hermia to Lysander, Helena to Demetrius, and Hippolyta to Theseus.
The Fanfare and Funeral March, played by a handful of instruments, is the music for the rustic clowns’ play-within-the-play. The Dance of the Clowns functions as music for the Bergamasque that Quince, Bottom, and their companions dance after they perform the comedy Pyramus and Thisbe for the Duke and his palace guests in Act V. The music is based on the donkey “hee-haw” that first occurs in the Overture.
The Finale, with music that begins and ends like the Overture, accompanies the short scene in which the fairies come to bestow their blessings on the newly-married couples. Mendelssohn assigns Oberon’s words to the women’s chorus and Titania’s to a solo voice.
Through the house give glimmering light
By the dead and drowsy fire;
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier;
And this ditty after me
Sing and dance it trippingly.
First, rehearse your song by rote,
To each word a warbling note:
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.
Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.