Musicians discovering musical works of PtaszynskaBy Jennifer Carnig
Celebrated Polish composer Marta Ptaszynska, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor in Music, has been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with the Benjamin H. Danks Award, a prize given to an exceptional composer of ensemble works.
Ptaszynska will share the honor and its $20,000 award with Scott Wheeler, a composer who has been commissioned and performed by various orchestras as well as the New York City Opera.
The Danks Award, first given in 2003, rotates yearly between a composer, playwright and author, and so this is only the second time that composers have received the honor.
“It’s truly a lovely honor, and we’re very happy to give it,” said American Academy of Arts and Letters director Virginia Dajani. “Nobody applies for the honor, and so it’s a wonderful surprise for someone to hear that they’re receiving something they never even knew about. It’s wonderful validation.”
Dajani explained that 250 members of the academy nominate candidates for the music awards, and judged by a seven-member panel of composers, who listened over a two-day period to compositions before they decided on Ptaszynska and Wheeler. They will receive the award at the academy’s annual awards ceremony on Wednesday, May 17 in New York.
Ptaszynska is an acclaimed composer and percussionist with a special interest in the performance and analysis of new music and contemporary opera. She has written numerous works on commission, including two operas, symphonic works (including commissions from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Symphony), concerti and a Holocaust memorial cantata performed by Yehudi Menuhin.
Among Ptaszynska’s other honors are first prize for her work Winter’s Tale at the International Rostrum of Composers in 1986 and the Cross of Merit from the Polish government in 1995.
“It is wonderful to receive an award like this, a great feeling,” Ptaszynska said of the Dank Award. “But awards are temporary. Only time will show the quality of my work. If my music survives, then maybe I deserve this award.”
Ptaszynska came to the University in 1998 from Indiana University where she was a professor in composition, and prior to that appointment, she was a composer in residence at Northwestern University for five years. Born in Warsaw, Poland, Ptaszynska earned a bachelors degree from the Lycee of Music, a master’s degree from the Higher School of Music and another master’s from the Academy of Music, all in Poland. She also studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she earned her artist diploma degree.
Over the past year, orchestras in Spain, Poland, France and Germany have performed or are scheduled to perform her work.
“I’m astounded that they’re finding me,” Ptaszynska said, explaining that she does nothing to promote her work or push her pieces on ensembles. “That’s what I’m most proud of—that musicians love to play my music without my interference. This is the most happy time in my life because of that. It’s the best award.”