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Meet the Musicians

Making the Rounds: a Q&A with Pianist Awadagin Pratt

Pianist Awadagin Pratt leans on a Yamaha Piano
Awadagin Pratt | Photo by Rob Davidson

Famed pianist Awadagin Pratt’s career took off 30 years ago when he was awarded first prize in the prestigious Naumberg International Piano Competition; from there, his life changed in a whirlwind as the Peabody Conservatory of Music graduate went from performing two concerts per year to as many as 100. He’d go on to perform for famous audiences from Sesame Street’s Big Bird to President Barack Obama at the White House. As his career began to flourish, Pratt appeared in recital at some of the nation’s most prestigious venues including Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (Los Angeles), Orchestra Hall in Chicago and more; he’d also go on to perform with top orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Baltimore, St. Louis, National and Detroit symphonies. He currently holds a position as professor of piano at the Cincinnatti Conservatory of Music and was just awarded a professorship at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, not to mention he’s the director of the Art of the Piano Festival and Foundation.

Video: Awadagin Pratt on Sesame Street

This year has seen Pratt on a new venture: touring a brand-new concerto for piano and orchestra by modern music luminary Jessie Montgomery, a violinist and composer whose work has received much critical acclaim and performance across major American orchestras in the past few years. This New Year’s Eve and Day, Pratt brings Montgomery’s new concerto, which was commissioned by his Art of the Piano Foundation and written especially for him, to the Orchestra Hall stage. Pratt admits he’s a big observer of the New Year’s holiday–he’s turned down other requests to perform on this day–but for a celebratory performance of Rounds with the legendary conductor Marin Alsop and the Minnesota Orchestra, he’s obliged. 

We asked him about his career, Rounds and more:

Minnesota Orchestra: You've achieved a lot in your 30-year career. What else do you hope to accomplish in this next phase?

Awadagin Pratt: I'm excited to as always to continue performing, and I'm looking forward to the work at San Francisco Conservatory of Music which promises to be exciting. The school is at the forefront of engaging with this generation of students about what it means to be a 21st-century musician. Both leading and taking their lead! Beyond that I'm looking to further my conducting as a guest conductor. 

Video: Awadagin Pratt performs at the White House, 2009

Jessie Montgomery’s concerto, Rounds, is her first-ever piano concerto. It was commissioned especially to be performed by you–can you tell us a bit more about your personal connection to this work, as a person and as a performer? How involved, if at all, were you in the compositional process?   

I was only involved after the piece was written and we worked through some elements of voicing and registration. As the piece is a part of a commission from the Art of the Piano Foundation, which I founded, of course I'm very dedicated to the work and its performances, and its success with audiences, so the reception that it's had has been very rewarding. 

Rounds has, so-to-say, “made the rounds” across the country–you’ve performed this work with major orchestras from Boston to Denver and beyond. How has your interpretation changed since you first performed it?  

Like any great work, one learns more about the piece as one performs and studies it. For me this is reflected mostly in the cadenza which is 90 percent my own, and is varied with every performance. A fair bit of the cadenza is improvised each performance, and in between performances or sets of performances, varying facets of the piece emerge as points of interest that I focus on. I also hear different connections between motives as time goes on. The body of the piece doesn't change as much.  

This work is very concerned with interconnectedness and the natural elements of life. Can you describe a specific example in the concerto that demonstrates this?   

I think Jessie could describe better what she specifically had in mind but there's a motivic connectedness throughout the piece where motives exchange between instruments without hierarchy. Also new elements blossom naturally from previous elements.  

You and Jessie have collaborated before and know each other’s artistry–how is your relationship reflected in the piece?    

Jessie and I played a quintet together when she was with the Catalyst Quartet living her musical life primarily as a violinist. So we collaborated as chamber musicians. I think that's reflected in the piece, it's more of a collaborative all parts are equal piece than a concerto usually is. In fact I've performed and recorded it without conductor with A Far Cry and it worked beautifully in that way as well. 

You’re also an accomplished conductor–how does that inform your piano performance career, and vice versa?  

Well, I study all scores from the perspective of a conductor; but what's interesting is that since I've been a violinist and pianist since childhood, and conductor for most of my life at this point, I have no idea what it is to be a pianist who is not a violinist and conductor, or a conductor who's not a pianist and violinist, nor for that matter a violinist (though I play quite rarely) who's not a pianist and conductor! 

Finally–thanks for spending your New Year’s with us! Do you have any NYE traditions?   

New Year's Eve is kind of the holiday that I really celebrate. I turned down the one other NYE invitation for a concert that I've received in my career. Happy to say yes to this one, and hope to find a place to have a cigar before the night’s out!

Your champagne toast awaits! Join us at Orchestra Hall for a New Years' Celebration.

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