Some composers hold full-time teaching posts. Others, like Thomas Adès or Esa-Pekka Salonen, maintain major conducting careers. But Paola Prestini offers a third model that seems very much of our time: along with being an award-winning composer, she has developed an equally significant career as an arts entrepreneur.
Born in Italy and reared in Arizona, Prestini is the co-founder and artistic director of National Sawdust, which promotes new music in a multitude of styles. The high-tech, non-profit venue takes its name from a former sawdust factory in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“When I’m creating programs and structures like Sawdust, I’m creating the infrastructures, the possibilities for them to exist in the same way that I organize sound,” Prestini said. “That’s been my biggest challenge, but’s it also who I am.”
In July, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform the regional premiere of Prestini’s Hindsight: Let Me See the Sun, a concerto for piano and orchestra, as part of the Ravinia Festival (which was one of four co-commissioners). But that concert had to be canceled, along with the rest of Ravinia’s 2020 programming because of the current pandemic.
Instead, CSO audiences will have a chance Nov. 12 to hear her G-Force, for Mickey as part of CSO Sessions, the weekly series of virtual concerts streamed on the CSOtv video portal. “I’m just happy that somehow my music is in Chicago, and I’m really grateful,” she said.
As is the case in many families, Prestini’s mother enrolled the young Paola in piano lessons, but she didn’t enjoy practicing. Instead, she found herself “doodling” and making early attempts at writing her own music.
The youngster wound up telling her mother that she had no interest in being a pianist but she did want to compose. At age 11, she began studies in that realm and went on to attend the Interlochen Arts Academy, the prestigious high school in Michigan, where she continued to study composition.
One of the works that established her as a major voice was Oceanic Verses (2009), a 70-minute folk opera and song cycle, which was commissioned in part by Carnegie Hall. Accompanied by a film by Ali Hossaini, the work saw performances at the Kennedy Center and Barbican Centre in London.
After the work’s local premiere at Pace University, New York Times critic Allan Kozinn wrote, “Renaissance songs, folk melodies that may be even older, and 19th-century popular tunes are all given updated chamber accompaniments that mesh smoothly with Ms. Prestini’s own agreeable linking music. And the characters have sound worlds of their own.”
Collaborations like this one have been a hallmark of her work since she was a student at New York’s Juilliard School and co-founded VisionIntoArt in 1999 with other artists such as composer Nico Muhly and conductor Paul Haas. VisionIntoArt, a new-music and interdisciplinary arts production company, has gone on to create and perform more than 25 works, as well as release albums through its self-titled record label.
While Prestini does compose more conventional works on her own, she loves to spearhead these kinds of group ventures that take her in new directions and stretch her as an artist. “Certainly, when I’m producing my own work and doing it out of commission, creating the context for the work, I thrive in collaborating for sure,” she said.
Oceanic Verses led to three defining interdisciplinary projects in 2015-2016: The Aging Magician, The Colorado and The Hubble Cantata. During the pandemic, Prestini has joined Mexican jazz singer-songwriter Magos Hererra on an “operatic tableau” titled Con Alma.
The project, which deals with themes of isolation, communion and nature, consists of original works alongside classic songs from the Mexican and jazz songbooks. With 30 musicians from three continents performing and recording in quarantine, the album will be released Dec. 4 on National Sawdust Tracks; it also will be featured as a live digital event on Dec. 13 on allarts.org.
“Everyone is looking to connect,” Prestini said, “and so I think a lot of artists have been adapting, mastering platforms and technologies, trying to find ways to push this digital age into a time when we can be connected.”
In 2015, she took on the biggest entrepreneurial undertaking of her career, founding National Sawdust with Kevin Dolan, a tax attorney who is passionate about emerging music. She wanted to create a “home” for composers, particularly those trying to gain a foothold in the field, providing them with performance opportunities, financial support and mentorship.
Three years later, under National Sawdust’s auspices, she started the Hildegard Competition, named for Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century Christian mystic and polymath, who was an important medieval composer. The contest, which includes a $7,000 cash prize and a commission, is targeted to female, non-binary and trans composers in the early stages of their careers — what Prestini calls “voices that needed to be heard.”
Prestini notes that when she studied at Juilliard , she never had a female mentor, “So being able to create something that really specifically identified and helped a certain area of the field felt really right to me,” she said.
In part because of the #MeToo Movement, the inequality between male and female composers has gained increased attention in recent years, with the Philadelphia Orchestra launching its WomenNOW initiative in 2019-2020.
“I think the beginning of the conversation is being had,” Prestini said. “It’s exciting. I think it’s beginning to trickle up into larger, legacy organizations, which has been just wonderful.”
But she believes there is much more that needs to be done. “When you come from a history of non-representation, which has happened in the Western canon for centuries, there is a lot of work to be done, and I’m there for it.”
G-Force is dedicated to Mickey Straus, a longtime friend and supporter who died in 2014. Prestini met Straus, an arts philanthropist, through her mother, and he became the first person financially to back her work, giving her $1,500 to help establish VisionIntoArt. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do? We have so much money.’ And that began this beautiful friendship, and he went on to support every work I did,” she said. “He changed my life.”
The 10-minute piece is scored for the unusual combination of vibraphone and string quartet. She wrote it for percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum, who featured it on his album “Memory Palace” (2017) with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.
G-force is a measurement of the force of acceleration, so it’s not surprising that this work rockets forward to its conclusion, to what the composer calls a “moment of gliss,” a play-on-words reference to a vibraphone glissando or slide. It leaves the listener, she said, with “this kind of suspense at the very end.”
“There was something just about the strings hugging the sound of the vibraphone and creating this pretty full, huge sound that I thought was perfect for this commemoration,” Prestini said. “There’s a real clarity and distinct nature about both of those sounds. In those passages where they’re either fighting against each other, or they are both kind of zooming with that weight of the force of gravity, there was something about those textural sounds combining that I really loved.”
TOP: One of the works that established Paola Prestini as a major voice was Oceanic Verses (2009), a 70-minute folk opera and song cycle. | Photos: Caroline Tompkins (Prestini portrait) and Jill Steinberg (Oceanic Verses).