Emphasizing Local Musicians at SummerStage

Associate director of programming for the city’s acclaimed outdoor performing arts festival on her mission in booking artists - and how it’s shifted post-pandemic to NYC performers

| 29 Jun 2021 | 03:09

For Paula Abreu, one of her fondest memories of Capital One City Parks Foundation SummerStage was made before she even worked there. The Brazilian native-turned Harlem resident had just moved to New York and saw one of her musical idols, legendary South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela, in Central Park, and thought, “Wow, this is free.”

As fate would have it, a short time later, the NYU grad with a master’s in performing arts administration was hired as the famed summer series’ associate director of programming. Next year she will celebrate her tenth year exposing New Yorkers to global music.

During the pandemic, she, along with her women-run exec team successfully implemented a “very eclectic and robust program with a lot of diverse culture that reflected well our identity,” all via a digital platform. This summer is cause for even more celebration than usual, as in-person concerts are back at Rumsey Playfield, Marcus Garvey Park and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park with performances from artists like Machine Gun Kelly, Lake Street Dive, Patti Smith and Ani DiFranco and New York institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera, Parsons Dance and Complexions Contemporary Ballet. This world-renowned festival — which has become a seasonal staple in the city since its inception in 1986 — pays homage to the music that makes up the fabric of our city, by representing the genres of hip hop, Latin, indie rock, contemporary dance and jazz.

And although Abreu’s focus is on international artists, this year, she explained, there is a special emphasis being placed on local musicians, given the COVID-19 lockdown and what that meant for the music scene here in our city. “We wanted to elevate the artists that are here in New York City, one of the cities that was hurt the most doing the pandemic,” she said. “To make sure artists who are based here or have a strong connection with the city got the spotlight this year.”

What does your role entail?

My role is booking music programs, focusing on global music and jazz performances for SummerStage and Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, in addition to some of the pre-show panels and ancillary programs, like movie screenings, workshops and family programs that complement the festival’s lineup. I’m also responsible for special cultural date partnerships that are unique to SummerStage like Taiwanese Waves, Aussie BBQ, Korean Gayoje, among others.

What is some programming you did digitally during that time?

One of things I enjoyed the most happened last April. I curated a program, it was a combination of a music performance and then we presented a short documentary with an artist. And there was a poet that had a poem that also had some images from the sea where he was speaking from. It was interesting to play with these elements and not only do one straightforward performance. The name of the program is “Saudades,” and it was in celebration of World Portuguese Language Day. I’m from Brazil originally, so I am very connected to the Portuguese language and culture. It’s one of the languages most spoken in the Southern Hemisphere. People don’t know that ... There are Portuguese speakers not only in Brazil, but Africa, Portugal, of course, and Asia as well, so there’s so much in terms of richness of culture and music that comes out of these countries and people are not very familiar with that.

We also did an amazing tribute to Martin Luther King in partnership with Winter Jazzfest and Voices of a People’s History of the United States. There were some jazz performances and spoken-word artists, reading speeches from Dr. King and also other preeminent speakers ... This was in the winter, at the height of the pandemic. Everyone was home. I felt it gave us some hope and warmth. It was also right after the Capitol riot, which made a lot of us feel depressed.

SummerStage kicked off on June 17 with a free concert in Central Park with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. As far as this year, how is the festival different and how is it the same?

It’s funny that you’re asking this today because with the new rules the governor announced last week — that all the restrictions can be lifted — we’re changing it now, as we speak. We had a meeting this morning to talk about this. We were planning to have free tickets for all of the shows of the season, and that will likely change moving forward. It’s going to be like SummerStage has always been – first come, first served, open to the public and accessible to all. Anyone can walk in the venue, and doesn’t need a ticket to get in. Of course, we will still be following CDC recommendations for health and safety related to COVID-19.

I work a lot with international artists. And this year, of course, is different. There are barriers; people are not allowed to travel between many countries ... In terms of programming, as usual, we are covering diverse genres that reflect the cultural diversity of our city. However, this year specially, the programming is speaking to the special cultural hub that is New York City. In recognition of a city which breeds artists and has unique art forms coming directly from here, we are highlighting artists with special ties to New York City.

What are some shows that you’re looking forward to?

I am looking forward to Marc Rebillet. He’s a new artist who has a huge following digitally, but in terms of performing artists, he’s just coming out. He’s an electronic beat maker, but he’s going to work with DJ Premier, this legendary hip hop DJ, and Brady Watt, a bass player. He adores Erykah Badu, so someone with that vibe, but also very creative and makes interesting electronic sounds. And I think it’s going to be fun.

Sun Ra Arkestra is going to be our next big show on July 24. They actually played at SummerStage the first year, in 1986, so they’re coming back ... They are such legacy artists that led so many of the other generations of artists that are coming up. It just felt like a great show to have.

And then the last show that I would mention, to give a shout-out to my Brazilian show. We always have a Brazilian show. This year it’s a different type of show because it’s essentially a jazz concert, but the musician, Dom Salvador, his story is a story of resilience that I think is hard to compare to anyone else. But it also speaks a lot to the city of New York and how all of us who live here are resilient. He moved here fleeing the dictatorship in Brazil in the ‘70s and started from scratch ... He’s been playing at River Café as a pianist for 44 years. He’s a hidden genius that many people don’t know a lot about. There’s actually going to be a premiere of a documentary about him, “Dom Salvador & Abolition,” before his performance, and then he’s going to perform with his sextet.

What are your future plans?

On a personal note, I just had a baby during the pandemic. It’s my first daughter; I’m very happy. It’s the biggest challenge on its own to be a mom and be in this industry. I look forward to being a successful mom and a successful programmer at SummerStage. I’m always advocating for the diverse cultures that we represent at SummerStage. It’s easy to book Machine Gun Kelly ... indie and pop shows generally sell tickets very quickly ... But I’m always advocating for space for new artists or different cultures, so people can learn about other cultures as well. Music is a universal language that everyone relates to.

For the lineup of concerts and to purchase tickets, please visit cityparksfoundation.org/summerstage