With BSO performance, pianist Awadagin Pratt celebrates and challenges tradition – Baltimore Sun



When pianist Awadagin Pratt last performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – more than 20 years ago – his reputation was firmly that of a top performer of canonical composers: Think Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and their ilk.

Now, upon his return, Pratt brings something new: a piano concerto by Jessie Montgomery almost fresh from the presses, and with it a desire to contribute to literature for his instrument.

“I think it’s important in the legacy of a lot of artists [to consider] how many tracks they added to the repertoire,” Pratt said in an interview. “Artists come and go. It is the composers, their names and their music, that remain.

Perhaps Pratt is being too modest: It’s also true that many well-known composers have headlining performers to thank for championing and touring their music. And Montgomery isn’t the only composer Pratt has worked with recently. While his concerto was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it is part of a larger album project developed by Pratt called “Still Point”, in which seven composers respond to “Burnt Norton”, TS’s first poem. Eliot’s “four quartets”.

Many musicians probably count this poem among their favorites. Scholars have speculated whether the poems were Eliot’s own response to music – particularly Beethoven’s “late” quartets Nos. 12-16 – and much of the language is directly or indirectly musical, pondering time, movement and stillness.

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Some of the composers commissioned by Pratt chose to stage the text. (The album, funded by the Art of the Piano Foundation and slated for release in 2023 on New Amsterdam Records, will also feature the talents of Grammy-winning vocal group Roomful of Teeth and the orchestra of room A Far Cry.) Others, like Montgomery, opted for a purely musical interpretation. But Pratt indicated that the poem’s influence is still recognizable, especially considering the lines, “At the still point of the turning world…there is the dance.”

“The dance quality of [Montgomery’s piece] is obvious, the rotational quality,” Pratt said. “There’s a figure that sort of spins on itself – that’s one of the main themes. Meanwhile, the piano has this beautiful melody that also spins on itself.

The Montgomery Concerto premiered a little over a month ago, but the response, according to Pratt, is already gratifying. “It’s one thing to start playing a track and realize that there are parts that are really beautiful,” he said. “It’s another thing to realize that it has an effect on people.”

Part of this effect is in the subtext. In commissioning the composers of “Still Point,” Pratt said it was important to “represent the African-American voice” — especially in work that doesn’t directly relate to the experience of being black. (Four of the seven commissioned composers are black, including Montgomery.)

“I think it’s important, whether in philosophy or in any artistic endeavor, that there can be commentary on things that are firmly entrenched in the canon – that African Americans and underrepresented people have the power to comment on things that aren’t uniquely unique to their experience,” Pratt said.

In 1992 Pratt became the first black pianist to win the prestigious Naumberg International Piano Competition. Since then, he has been in demand as a soloist with symphonies all over the world. His performance with the BSO is something of a homecoming: Pratt studied at the Peabody Institute and called Baltimore home for seven years.

Awadagin Pratt performs with Christian Reif and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra May 5 at the Music Center in Strathmore and May 6-8 at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Tickets start at $25. Digital access is $10.

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