Feature Article

Interview: Pianist Awadagin Pratt

May, 2003

Jason V. Serinus


EMI recording artist Awadagin Pratt, 37, is a rare phenomenon: a multi-talented musician and conductor whose race, casual appearance, dreadlocks, and first name Awadagin (pronounced ah-wah-DAH-jin, named for a friend of his father's who was born in Sierra Leone) attract as much attention as his considerable artistry. To Pratt, however, race is almost beside the point. While he well understands that the paucity of African-American concert artists is a subject deserving attention, and has experienced his unfair share of housing discrimination and police harassment (including an unjustified night in the Baltimore jail, which ended when the administration at Peabody Institute where he was a student contacted the State Attorney's Office and demanded his release), he considers his race and appearance ancillary to his musicianship.

I conducted a series of phone and e-mail exchanges with Pratt shortly before he gave a March 2003 performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 with the Hartford Symphony. This was followed by an April 3 stint as both conductor and pianist with the New Mexico Symphony.

Jason V. Serinus: What do you want people to know about you as an artist?

Awadagin Pratt: The main thing is that I take seriously my job as their contact with Beethoven and other composers.

The greatest complement I ever received was right after I won the Naumburg International Competition in 1992, the competition that launched my international career and landed me my EMI recording contract. It came from Robert Mann, the President of Naumburg who was the first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet for 50 years. Bobby said that I made him feel like he was in the presence of the composer. Whether I achieve that every night or not, who knows. But that's what I'm going after.

JVS: I've attended many piano recitals in Berkeley's Hertz Hall, but when I heard yours a few years back, the way you made the piano resound in that space was like nothing I've heard before or since.

When did you decide to move into a full-time career? What is it like to sustain it?

AP: In 1992, I was in school at Peabody, and had been in school for ten years. I wanted desperately to not be in school anymore. I was finishing a diploma in conducting, and was 3/4 of the way through an arts diploma in piano. (I received my piano and violin diplomas in 1989, and my conducting diploma in 1992). At that point, I wanted to either conduct or play the piano. I applied for a teaching position. Starting in January of 1992, I was one of the final two for the position, but I didn't get it. In April, I was invited to audition for the Affiliate Artists conducting program, which that year was with the Louisville Symphony, and I didn't get that. And then Naumburg was in May, and I won that. That's really the way my career started.

JVS: It's like a little sign lit up in the Universe saying “This is the Way.”

AP: I was very fortunate to have good guidance from the beginning with Lucy and Robert Mann at Naumburg. Bobby of course, thanks to all his experiences with the Juillard Quartet, provided a lot of guidance about programming, pacing, etc.

The first couple of years were really crazy. Then I got the record contract and ended up at IMG with my wonderful current manager Linda Marder. I was very fortunate in that regard.

I didn't use to travel well – I didn't like to fly -- but that changed. I went from playing maybe five concerts the calendar year before -- three were at school -- to discovering how liberating it could be to play the same recital program more than once. Then I had to adjust to playing a different concerto each week. I did that for awhile before figuring out that it wasn't what I really wanted to do. So I learned how to structure things, how to fit in practice. It took 4-5 years to sort it all out.

Now I discuss my schedule first with my manager. Each place you are, no one cares what you played in the town before; they expect 100%, and if you're tired, it's a disservice.

JVS: Please discuss Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 which you're performing in Hartford, Connecticut.

AP: Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto is a blend of drama and power; it also has some really great, lyrical writing. The second theme in the first movement is a very beautiful simple theme.

The work is approximately 30 minutes long. Beethoven performed the premiere in 1803, but probably began writing it in early 1800, just prior to his first concert in Vienna. He completed the concerto after he received a new piano from Erard in the summer of 1803 which allowed him to play additional keys in the high register.  

This was the second concerto I learned, and the first I learned well. Though I learned it in the early or mid '80s, I probably didn't perform it until the late ‘80s or early 90's.

A pianist can approach the piece in two ways, either in a very vigorous, vertical manner, or horizontally, seeing a lot of lines and fluidity. The writing combines both things; the challenge is to voice the power in a very lyrical, beautiful way.

JVS: When you say “vertical,” do you refer to scaling the heights?

AP: Vertical signifies where is the music moves with a more marked, emphatic beat, as opposed to a flowing, horizontal style. Beethoven's second movement speaks for itself with its horizontal, beautiful quality, but the first and third movements lend themselves to a different approach. Some people play the third movement very strongly, almost with anger, while others take it very lightly, in a more humorous vein. Both those qualities are part of the music, and I voice both in my interpretation. There's also a lot of little humor that surfaces throughout, especially in the third movement, where there are many immediate shifts and delays.

JVS: How does this music speak to you? What draws you to it?

AP: I was initially drawn by its grand and dramatic gestures, including the strength and power of the opening. There are a lot of things that are presaged in the work, such as the opening of Beethoven No. 5 which is echoed a lot through the movement.

The cadenza is an outrageous flight of fancy. The original cadenza in the first concerto is very short and brief, but by the third and fourth concertos, Beethoven really shows what his improvisatory style was like. It's really wonderful to experience. Of course Beethoven went back and wrote another cadenza for the First Concerto. I have my own, but it's based on some of the traveling and improvisational quality in the third concerto.

There's a lot of mystery in the piece, such as in the development section of the first movement, where there's a sense of foreboding that continues through the movement; the energy behind it is somewhat unnerving. The longer I play this piece, the more I delve into the sense of mystery.

JVS: Do different pieces take you on different journeys? What journey does this piece take you on?

AP: There is a real sense at the end of having overcome something; it's fully joyous and triumphant. It's really not a feeling of struggle up to that point, which may seem contradictory when I talk about an ending of triumph, but the end really lets go with real, unabashed joy.

The slow movement is very reflective. What's peculiar about it is that what seems like a tune in the slow movement isn't really a tune at all (singing the notes). It's interesting how Beethoven manipulates harmony to give a sense of line and phrasing without writing the kind of overtly wonderful, beautiful melody that you're going to sing walking out the door. This is probably one of his first pieces where he deals with cells of material rather than the real melodies that you hear in the First and Fifth Concertos.

JVS: Who are your favorite composers?

AP: Beethoven used to be my favorite composer. In high school, I wrote papers about him at every opportunity, even though I didn't even know 10% of his output. I remember the first time I encountered Vol. 2 of the Beethoven sonatas. I was 14 or 15, and I was just amazed at a whole other world. But by the time you start to deal with Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Rachmaninov, feelings change.

I have not played a lot of French music besides a fair bit of Franck. Next season I'm going to program some Debussy. But the central core Austro-German, 18th and 19th century composers resonate most strongly with me.

JVS: What is that resonance about?

AP: There's something in German music that starts with Beethoven. I was not a Mozart fan for a long time, but I am now. In Florida and Albuquerque I'm playing the Piano Concerto No. 23, which I absolutely adore; it's one of my favorite pieces of music. Mozart said something like music should never express things that are ugly or horrific. It's not as if he doesn't deal with pain…

JVS: …He sure does in the Requiem…

AP: Yes, but maybe it's always colored slightly. Beethoven took the lid off and really let it go. The more direct and naked expression of emotions starts then. But you also experience the fight that took place inside composers who were so aware of the forms they were writing in.

The struggle these composers experienced to write super-expressive music and fit it into classical form, both their psychological and emotional/intellectual processes, really interests me. In Brahms, there's a great deal of tension between the extroverted, full-on expression of something that is oppressed into a figure a form. There's always a contraction: there's something pushing out and something pulling in at the same time, which creates a fantastic and wonderful tension. The balance between those things carries the music on its journey. Sometimes one thing prevails, sometimes another.

JVS: Have you ever performed with Edward Cumming, your conductor in Hartford?

AP: The last time I was there I played with Michael Lancaster, the Music Director at the time. I met Edward, though, at an American Symphony Orchestra League conducting workshop before he had his current conducting position.

JVS: Have you ever had any disastrous experiences with conductors, on the order of the infamous Glenn Gould/Leonard Bernstein pairing on Brahms Concerto No. 1 that led Lenny to preface the performance with a disclaimer?

AP: I've had a few unfortunate collaborations, but they've been few and far between. There were a couple of times when it initially seemed that the conductor and I were on the same page, then all of a sudden we weren't. And there were a few times when it was clear there were going to be issues from the get-go. Generally, even if you're not having a totally symbiotic relationship, you can still make music together. And when you discover yourself completely on the same page with the conductor, it's even more wonderful.

JVS: With which conductors have you established such a rapport?

AP: Mark Russell Smith, Bill Edins in Atlanta… I'm afraid if I try to name them all, I'll leave someone out.

JVS: How much contemporary music do you do?

AP: I haven't done much. I'm currently commissioning works from 27-year old composer Theodore Shapiro, who lives principally in NY. We met through mutual friends. He's Julliard-trained, writes music for film scores by Heist and others, and recently had his music played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He writes really wonderfully for the voice.

I'm also the Artistic Director of the Next Generation Festival that I run every June and July in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania (http://www.nextgenerationfestival.org) . With both a soprano and a piano trio programmed, I thought it would be great to commission Shapiro to write a piece for those forces. I also asked him to write me a Piano Concerto called Avenues, which we performed in Seattle, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis in 2003.

The Next Generation Festival is a reincarnation of the region's New Generation Festival. It was originally scheduled over the course of a month, with one recital per weekend performed by emerging artists.

In 1989 I was invited to play a recital there. After I won Naumburg in 1992, I returned to Pennsylvania to perform a benefit concert for the festival. Then, the woman who started it invited me and the St. Lawrence String Quartet to perform in the festival's final year. When the St. Lawrence String Quartet couldn't make it, she invited me to bring friends to perform on the final concert.

After the founder stepped down, Ellen Hughes at radio station WTIF offered to produce the Next Generation Festival featuring Awagagin Pratt and friends. The station is located in Harrisburg, but the festival takes place throughout their listening area: York, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Ansel (Lebanon Valley College, which hosts us), York College, Franklin and Marshall, Susquehanna College.

This year's artists will include Zuill Bailey, Navah Perlman, Giora Schmidt, Sara Sant‘ Ambrogio, Amybeth Horman, Benjamin Breen, and Rachel Shapiro. Repertoire includes Brahms' Quintet, Dvorak's Terzetto, Schubert's Fantasie for Four hands, and Shostakovitch's Trio#2. I will also teach a Master Class at Millersville University just outside of Lancaster. Half to two thirds of concerts at the New Generation Festival include special outreach to children.

JVS: Why have you mostly stayed away from performing contemporary music?

APL: It's not that I'm staying away from it; I have a big interest in it. In fact, when I was in school, I frequently conducted the music of student composers. It's just that I still haven't performed the backlog of solo music that I've wanted to play ever since I was a kid; the wish list remains long.

For the last five I've featured some New Music on every Festival program. We've played some Rzewski, and Harbison, and will shortly play the music of Carlos Sanchez Gutierrez.

JVS: You've begun a scholarship program, The Pratt Foundation.

AP: I started it in 1997 or 1998, after we did some benefit concerts to get the endowment going. It's in memory of my father. It provides scholarships and music lessons for children who would otherwise be unable to afford them. This year there are 15 recipients. There's also mentorship, a system of checking in and guidance which comes from the Board members in the case of special needs (e.g. if someone needs direction or guidance). It's located in Bloomington-Normal where I grew up.

JVS: Were your parents musical?

AP: My father played the organ when he was a kid, and my parents played classical music all the time while I was growing up.

JVS. When I think of African-American pianists besides you who play on the international circuit, I think of Andre Watts. Are there others?

AP: Leon Bates and Richard Field are two others; there aren't too many who have made a concert career of it.

JVS. Do you encounter racism among audiences and conductors?

AP: I would have to say no. It's not that it hasn't been an issue, because race is an issue.

JVS: This is America.

AP: Right (chuckling); this is America. Racism is such a subjective business anyway that you don't know where things come into play. But in general, I feel that if people like the music, they like the music; if they don't, they don't. I haven't had any problems.

JVS: What do you feel about the whole contraction that's happening with classical music?

AP: I just looked at Bush's program, No One Left Behind, for the first time.  I look at his testing scheme, and I see a problem. They say they want to raise the standard of teachers and get scores to “universal tests” even though it's questionable what the test scores measure. Congress says they need $16 million, but they've only appropriated $11 million. Then you look at a graph that shows how many states are under-funded.

There's not enough money for education, but there's money to do Lord knows what we're trying to do all over the world. It's a reflection of a state of mind, and classical music introductory classes become a low priority when people aren't learning how to read and write. In certain places where there's no public funding for music education in the schools, people have started to raise money to institute music programs. It's a bad situation, but it's no worse than people not knowing how to read. I can't quite figure it out.

Last night, while I was in Fort Lauderdale preparing for an upcoming concert, I went out to see what was going on. It was a Wednesday, but the bars were open until four in the morning, and there were so many people out. I was trying to figure out what was behind it. If they're College people, they've got to have class in the morning; if they're working people, they've got to go to work. It's really kind of crazy.

JVS: Why did you pick Albuquerque as your residence? What is your life like there?

AP: I was living in Baltimore when I started traveling. Once I had a career going, I realized I could live anywhere.

I wanted to live somewhere that was beautiful and that had good weather. I'd been in Salt Lake and Denver, and they reminded me of how much I had liked the time I was in the mountains at Bath in 1990. But I didn't want to live in those cities or states.

I kept hearing from people how wonderful New Mexico was, so in 1993 I traveled there over Labor Day weekend to check it out. I returned in October to find a place, and moved in December of 1993. I didn't know a soul.

The New Mexico Symphony is quite good. There's a chamber music series, and there's a lot going in dance and visual arts. But generally, when I'm home, I'm practicing or just chillin' out rather than attending concerts.

When I'm not chilling out in Albuquerque, I basically perform benefit concerts. I play with the New Mexico Symphony pretty much every other year.  I've recently performed a benefit concert for the organization that provides music scholarships at the University, and I'll perform a Sante Fe benefit April 26 for Dismas House, a halfway house for prisoners. I'll also teach four master classes at the University of New Mexico, my first work at the school, which are open to the public. The first, March 3 and March 10 are both piano master classes, There are also two chamber music master classes, the first April 4 and another right before the April 26 concert.

I enjoy living in Abq, but 90% of my colleagues live on the East Coast and regard my living here with incredulity even though they know its beauty. It's wonderful to come back here to the beauty and peace, which give me a renewed sense of space and rest. I'm excited to be making my conducting debut here, and it's quite an honor to do it with the New Mexico Symphony. I conducted the 8th at the National Symphony a few years ago, but that was the only time before. The New Mexico Symphony will be the finest orchestra that I will have conducted so far.

JVS: Let's talk about that April 3 performance and conducting debut with the New Mexico Symphony.

AP: I'll perform Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23, my favorite Mozart Concerto. It's a piece that I'm very fond of. In fact, at the time of our conversation I'm in between concerts in Florida, performing it six times total.

The piece is full of joy and vitality. There's a real elation. I have the hardest time in the last movement, because the music is so exhilarating. I have to reign myself in to stay in control of what I'm doing, because it's so easy to just get on the horse and ride.

The slow movement is one of the Mozart's personal expressions of great despair and sorrow. The score says that it should be played very slowly, with the pianist told to hold a single note for a number of notes.

When I first looked at the score, it was hard to believe that Mozart wanted me to just sit on one note. As I looked very carefully at the notes at the beginning of the Barenreiter Edition, I found a list of sources. One was an elaboration in Mozart's hand of the second movement Adagio. I then learned from Joseph Silversteiin in Florida that this is Mozart's only slow movement in F sharp minor. 

In between concerts in Bridgeport and Florida, I went to the Lincoln Center Library and found the critical commentary referred to. They had a copy of the manuscript in Mozart's hand and also transcribed. I got a copy of Mozart's elaborations and very chromatic embellishments. I've incorporated maybe 1/3 of them into my performance, and also added my own.

It was very exciting to find my thoughts about Mozart's writing validated in his own hand. Silverstein says that Robert Levin and Emmanuel Ax have also used this information in their performances. There may be other others.

We're also doing Handel's Concerto Grosso Op. 6. No. 10. I've loved Handel's music for a long time. The Messiah was probably one of my first real loves in music. I haven't performed a lot of his keyboard music, but I've played through it a lot.

I initially programmed the Concerto Grosso for a chamber concert in Toledo in March. It's a wonderful piece with two solo violin parts and a solo cello part that has the same quality of D major high energy that people love in the Hallelujah chorus, and the slow movement is a sarabande. Handel wrote most stately, beautiful, somber and serene sarabandes; you can walk away feeling the beauty of these melodies.

We're ending with Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. The Eighth comes at the beginning of Beethoven's late period; it's regarded by some as a second cousin to the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th. There's a real economy of means and motive. Beethoven employs really old ABA forms; there's no real slow movement, so the energy is always uplifting. The finale is a brisk scamper, full of surprises. with very witty little stops on the wrong note and the wrong beat. There's no sense of the struggle that you encounter in Beethoven 5 or 9, but it ends with same sense of the triumph of the spirit.

JVS: What do you do when you're not doing music?

AP: I play a lot of basketball and a fair amount of chess. Cooking and wine are the other prime leisure activities.

JVS: Do you have plans for another recording project?

AP: No. The Bach disc with the St. Lawrence String Quartet was the last one.  The record industry has basically been a disaster area, with a lot of changes at EMI. There's nothing in the pipeline, and there's nothing in my head right now that I'm burning up to do.

JVS. What would you tell someone new to classical music about the best way to approach it?

AP. I've never met a person who has attended a concert and not liked something. I don't think it's something someone has to be ‘prepared for.' Of course, the more you know, the more you enjoy it. But going for the first time, I think the full on experience hits everyone somewhere in a positive way.

I have found generally that people have a lot of prejudices about classical musicians. It starts with the musicians or the people who regularly attend, and it extends from there to the music.

It's really interesting to discover people who think that if you're a classical musician, you're boring, you're stuck up, or you're pretentious, and that's what keeps them from going to concerts. I always knew those feelings existed, but I just found out recently that those feelings are deeper than what I expected.  

JVS: Why do you do music?

AP: Ultimately, music and art are about our humanity. They have the capacity to draw people closer together. The things that were most crucial to composers 200 or 300 years ago are still relevant to us today. Everything that defines us as human beings music and art glorify: ourselves, our families, love. That we have the capacity to experience the breadth of life through music is cause for celebration.

JVS: Is drawing people closer together important to you?

AP: As a human being, understanding and empathy are an antidote to selfishness. They're the things that pull us away from our destructive tendencies.



Friday, June 6 (7:30p.m.): Lebanon Valley College, Zimmerman Recital Hall of the Suzanne H. Arnold Gallery, Annville, PA

Saturday June 7 (7:30p.m.): Harrisburg Area Community College, Rose Lehrman Arts Center, Harrisburg, PA

Sunday, June 8 (3 p.m.): Franklin and Marshall College, Barshinger Center for Musical Arts in Hensel Hall, Lancaster, PA

Monday, June 9 (7:30p.m.): Elizabethtown College, Leffler Chapel and Performance Center, Elizabethtown, PA

Friday, June 13 (7:30 p.m.): Lebanon Valley College, Zimmerman Recital Hall of the Suzanne H. Arnold Gallery, Annville, PA

Saturday, June 14 (7:30 p.m.): Susquehanna University, Degenstein Theater, Selinsgrove, PA

Sunday, June 15 (3 p.m.): York College of Pennsylvania, MAC Recital Hall York, PA

Monday, June 16 (3 p.m.) Millersville University (Chamber Music Master Class), Lyte Auditorium in Alumni Hall, Millersville PA

Tuesday, June 17 (7:30 p.m.): Franklin and Marshall College, Barshinger Center for Musical Arts in Hensel Hall, Lancaster PA


- Jason Serinus -

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