ALBUM REVIEW: “Strum” by Jessie Montgomery

New York-based violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery looks confidently over her shoulder in the cover art for her debut album “Strum: Music for Strings.” Surrounded by the black and white rubble of a broken and buried city, she emerges with strength and poise, her chin held high and her hand on her hip—a golden light amidst the dust and debris.


In some ways, the image evokes the artwork of the Harlem Renaissance—the use of color, the stylized portraiture, the message of strength and, above all, hope.

For nearly two decades, Montgomery has been affiliated with the Sphinx Organization, a group which supports the accomplishments of young African-American, Latino, and minority string players. Since 2012 she has held a post as Composer-in-Residence with the Sphinx Virtuosi, a conductor-less string orchestra, and she has also been a two-time laureate in the annual Sphinx Competition.

“Strum” is the first album dedicated solely to Montgomery’s music, and marks her debut as a leading composer and performer. The album features performances by the Sphinx Virtuosi, PUBLIQuartet (of which Montgomery is a co-founder), and of course, the Catalyst Quartet—Montgomery’s own chamber music group.

The album combines classical chamber music with elements of folk music, spirituals, improvisation, poetry, and politics, crafting a unique and insightful newmusic perspective on the cross-cultural intersections of American history.

The first piece, “Starburst,” serves as a one-movement introduction to the colorful album, highlighting the dynamic energy and multilayered soundscapes to come. Premiered by the Sphinx Virtuosi, the piece is performed with grace, precision, and explosive verve.

What follows is a markedly more soulful and melancholy requiem titled “Source Code,” performed by the Catalyst Quartet. The one-movement work echoes with the rich musical history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, with many of its melodies and musical textures inspired by AfricanAmerican artists of that era.

“I experimented by re-interpreting gestures, sentences, and musical syntax (the bare bones of rhythm and inflection) by choreographer Alvin Ailey, poets Langston Hughes and Rita Dove, and the great jazz songstress Ella Fitzgerald into musical sentences and tone paintings,” Montgomery said of her inspiration for the piece. “Ultimately, this exercise of listening, re-imagining, and transcribing led me back to the black spiritual as a common musical source across all three genres.”

Ripe with poignancy, the piece tells a countless tales as its haunting melodies and slow glissandos ruminate through the gorgeous, blues-inspired harmonies.


Photo credit: Jiyang Chen

Montgomery goes on to explore a wide range of musical textures in “Break Away,” a work comprised of five short movements with added improvisational elements. Written for the PUBLIQuartet in 2013, the piece moves from musical abstractions to songlike melodies, airy glissandos to jazz improvisations. Technically demanding and skillfully performed, the piece explores a vast terrain of musical textures in under 10 minutes and ends with a wildly dissonant bang.

then breaks away from chamber music for “Rhapsody No. 1,” an unaccompanied violin solo which serves as the first in a series of six rhapsodies which she plans to write in tribute to the tradition of J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas.


Photo credit: Jiyang Chen

“In paying tribute to this archetypal tradition, I have chosen to elaborate by writing for a variety of solo voices across instrument families—violin, viola, flute, bassoon, and double bass—so that the final rhapsody in the cycle is a five part chamber work for all of the instruments in the collection,” she said of the cycle.

Here Montgomery showcases her passion and artistry as a soloist, balancing sensitivity and intimate expression with technical proficiency and fiery passion, crafting a compelling and unforgettable introduction to what’s sure to be a rapturous suite.

But in the case of this album, what follows is another type of rhapsody: Montgomery’s tribute to the 200th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Scored for solo string quartet and string orchestra, Montgomery’s “Banner” begins as a simple variation on the theme of the U.S. national anthem, but quickly expands into an exploration of world anthems and patriotic songs, begging the question: “What does a 21st century anthem sound like in today’s multicultural environment?

For Montgomery, a 21st century anthem pays tribute to all of America’s wide-ranging cultures, while also allowing space for the possibilities of new and ever-changing folk and popular idioms. She explores as many as she can in just under 10 minutes, drawing from both classical and folk traditions while also incorporating the high energy and rhythmic verve of marching bands, drumline choruses, multilayered fanfare, and more.

The album comes to a close with the title track, “Strum,” performed by the Catalyst Quartet. Strummed pizzicato lines serve as a texture motive across all four instruments, creating a rhythmic vitality which propels the piece forward from its nostalgic first moments all the way through to its ecstatic and dramatic ending. Layered rhythms and harmonic ostinati round out the piece’s warm, dancelike spirit, crafting a joyous and hopeful ending to Montgomery’s debut.

And while this album may just be the beginning for Montgomery, “Strum” certainly echoes with possibility.

ALBUM REVIEW: Yolanda Kondonassis and Jason Vieaux’s “Together”

by Maggie Molloy


Photo Credit: Laura Watilo Blake

The harp may be among the oldest musical instruments—dating back to at least as early as 3500 BCE in Ancient Mesopotamia—but that doesn’t mean an old instrument can’t learn new tricks.

Renowned classical harpist Yolanda Kondonassis recently joined forces with Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist Jason Vieaux to record an album of new music which pushes beyond the limits of simply classical. The album, titled “Together,” explores the vivid colors and rich textures of contemporary repertoire for harp and guitar by showcasing works by five composers from diverse musical backgrounds.

(Purchase on Amazon or iTunes)

The result is a vibrant program of music which travels seamlessly from lush melodies to simple folk dances to Argentine tango and even the modal tonalities of traditional Asian music. Some of the pieces even use unique harp effects such as pedal glisses, whistles, harmonics, “washboard” strumming, and percussive knocking on the soundboard.

“Contemporary effects are becoming far more common in today’s harp writing as composers try, I think, to search for new ways of expressing the harp idiom,” Kondonassis said. “In my opinion, the best harp writing occurs when the effects enhance the musical ideas and seem natural. It’s also up to me to make the effects sound seamless in the context of the music.”

The duo’s distinctive instrumentation allows their sound to blend and contrast, creating a wide variety of musical textures and timbres.

“I think a well-written piece by a composer who understands the two instruments will create great blend, contrast, dialogue, color—everything that makes chamber music work,” Vieaux said. “It’s really there in the compositions—we just have to bring it out.”

The pieces also provided a unique opportunity for each musician to explore new colors within their own instrument. Kondonassis even got the chance to add some pizzazz to an otherwise angelic pizzicato instrument.

“As a harpist, I’ve always been obsessed with trying to make my sound as warm as possible. It’s so refreshing for me to play off Jason’s warmth sometimes and be the spice, the acidic texture in the mix for a change,” Kondonassis said. “Sound-wise, I really opened up on this recording in ways I’m not sure I have before.”

The album begins with a performance of Argentine composer Máximo Diego Pujol’s four-movement “Suite Mágica,” a charming and romantic piece which takes much of its style, rhythms, and musical forms from the Argentine dance tradition. A guitarist himself, Pujol’s piece fuses elements of the classical idiom with vibrant Latin influences, transitioning flawlessly from gentle, lyrical melodic lines to vivacious rhythmic patterns.

The piece is followed by a beautifully contrasting work: Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge’s “Fantasia.” Amazingly diverse in its rhythmic and melodic content, the piece creates a dynamic and strikingly poetic conversation between the two instruments. The three contrasting movements illustrate an eclectic exploration of whimsicality and drama, occasionally even venturing outside of traditional tonal harmony to keep the listener hanging on every note.

The duo switches gears for Alan Hovhaness’ Sonata for Harp and Guitar (“Spirit of Trees”), an ethereal five-movement work which explores themes of nature, mysticism, and meditation. The piece’s frequent use of modal tonalities reflects the composer’s interest in traditional Asian music and philosophy, an influence which gives his music a tranquil, calming quality.

The album also includes two world premiere recordings of works commissioned by Kondonassis and Vieaux: Gary Schocker’s “Hypnotized” and Keith Fitch’s “Knock on Wood.” Schocker, a harpist himself, was inspired by the diverse musical textures made possible by pairing a string instrument capable of using vibrato with one that is not. His five-movement suite explores the vast possibilities of this unique instrumentation, ranging from lively, enchanting motifs to long, lush, and lyrical melodies.

Fitch’s “Knock on Wood” is probably the least traditional composition on the album. As the title suggests, the piece incorporates a wide range of percussive and rhythmic effects, making it a fascinating and fully captivating exploration of the sonic diversity of guitar and harp.

The composition is the perfect ending to a truly innovative album, offering a dazzling glimpse into the vast musical possibilities of this instrumental combination as Kondonassis and Vieaux continue their collaboration.