40th Birthday Concert & Gala – Composer Spotlight: Paola Prestini

Composer Paola Prestini is “the enterprising composer and impresario” (The New York Times) whose interdisciplinary vision is helping to shape the future of new music. Named one of Musical America’s “Top 30 Musical Innovators 2016” and one of the “Top 100 Composers in the World under 40” (NPR), her music has been commissioned by and performed at top orchestras and concert halls across the world.

She is the founding CEO and founding Artistic Director of National Sawdust, a nonprofit Brooklyn-based space for arts incubation and performance, and the “visionary-in-chief” (Time Out New York) of VisionIntoArt, the multimedia production company she co-founded in 1999 which has now merged with National Sawdust.

ACO’s 40th Birthday Concert – Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center – features music from Paola’s 2016 opera production Gilgamesh, and will recognize Paola as a special honoree at the Gala celebration, which coincides with the concert.

Paola was kind enough answer a few questions about Gilgamesh, as well as her broader role in today’s contemporary classical world.

Composer Paola Prestini

American Composers Orchestra: Here at ACO, we are very excited about the momentum that contemporary opera is gaining, with more and more innovative and cutting-edge productions breaking through to new audiences every season, Gilgamesh included. What are your hopes for contemporary opera in the next few years? Do you think it has potential that purely instrumental contemporary classical music doesn’t?

Paola Prestini: I think that opera appeals to younger audiences in that it has many levels of interaction with the audience, so in many ways, it’s a less abstract art form. From the music, to costumes, sets, projection, design, there are different ways into the form. I also think that the entrepreneurial approach of composers and indie companies has made opera more accessible than ever, because you don’t need to pay high prices as an audience member or be commissioned by large companies as an artist anymore to make grand, rich, statements.

ACO: Can you tell us a little bit about the different ways you have worked with ACO over the years?

PP: ACO was one of my first jobs when I graduated Juilliard! For a short while I worked as education director. I also was part of the reading series when I graduated Juilliard, and had a performance many many years ago on the Immigrant Voices series. But it wasn’t really until Ed came onboard that he brought me fully onboard as a composer for orchestra into the mix, which I truly appreciate! I wrote The Hotel That Time Forgot, about a hotel trapped in time on the Lebanese border for a performance this past May at Carnegie Hall. The video was by the Japanese artist Mami Kosemura. We had a great time making this work about invented memory, since neither of us had actually traveled there.

ACO: ACO President Ed Yim has said that honoring you at the gala was a necessity and a pleasure given all you have done for new music and american composers in NYC, especially since the opening of National Sawdust. How has your vision for National Sawdust evolved since the opening? Also, why do you think organizations like National Sawdust, ACO, and others seem to be finding it easier to work together and collaboratively now? Do you think that always was the case?

PP: I think companies are less territorial, and that everyone wants to assert their brand and identity while still getting the art done. Working together ensures a stronger product by allowing companies with different strengths to come together to help bring to life commissions, collaborations, and new ways of thinking. I think this is a product of the last 20 years and it is an exciting time to be creating and leading in. As far as my own role in this, I knew 20 years ago that my road as a woman composer who wanted to do rich multimedia work out of the box would be complex. And so in the words of my mentor Paul Soros, I made more pie, I didn’t divide it. The challenge has always been how to exist as multiple roles in my life-composer, mother, partner, leader, etc. But balance is difficult for every human being, and I try not to lose sight of the fact that I designed my own challenges and that in many way they reflect a complex spirit and desire.

ACO: Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński will perform the Prelude and first Greensnake Aria from your opera Gilgamesh. Can you describe a little bit about what’s going on in the story during these two pieces?

PP: Gilgamesh, with librettist Cerise Jacobs, is the story of Ming, the son of Madame White Snake, half demon-half man who was abandoned during his mother’s epic battle with the Abbot. He is identified with the protagonist of the Sumerian Epic, “Gilgamesh”, who was two-thirds god and one-third man. When the White Snake suddenly sends for him on his thirtieth birthday, he finds her in the form of a beautiful woman imprisoned in the Abbot’s alms bowl. The White Snake reveals his birthright and his power to control the waters. Ming tests his powers and brings the world to the brink of another devastating flood. The Abbot appears and sows the seeds of doubt about his mother. When Ming goes back to see her again, he sees a white snake in the alms bowl. Ming returns home to find that his wife, Ku, has just given birth to a white, iridescent baby girl who resembles her grandmother. He gives the baby to the green snake, Xiao Qing, who had taken him as a baby away from the floodwaters. He returns to the monastery. There is no one there. A robe and empty alms bowl are left. Ming dons the robe, takes the alms bowl and leaves.

The prologue which we are going to hear, and Green Snake’s (Xiao Qing’s) aria, introduce the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh and feature Jakub Józef Orliński as Xiao Qing, who introduces the story above.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to at our 40th Birthday Concert & Gala? Are there any other pieces on the program that you are particularly excited to hear?

PP: I’m excited to hear Elizabeth [Ogonek]’s work, and super excited to hear Jozef sing! I adore his voice and vibe. It’s always a joy to hear the classics too. And Bernstein is gold standard for all he initiated in our time. He was an excellent composer, educator, visionary, conductor, and human.


Hear Paola’s music, plus works by Ogonek, Bernstein, Ellington, Gershwin, and more, as ACO celebrates 40 years of American music – Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Learn more about Paola at www.paolaprestini.com
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