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An American Original

Piano & Keyboard magazine coverThis interview of Awadagin Pratt by Scott McBride Smith appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Piano & Keyboard and is reproduced here with permission.

"Personality" is said to be lacking in most of today's young pianists. Yet, if someone stakes a claim for originality, the feedback is often critical especially if the focus is on the external. How you sit and what you wear may attract more attention than your repertoire or your ability to project a unique musical voice. Awadagin Pratt does not hesitate to speak, act, and play as he feels he must. Is the music world ready to take him seriously?

Americans have adapted in various ways to a vastly increased flow of daily information. One coping mechanism was explained by psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1970. People adapt to over-stimulation by allocating less time to each input, he said, blocking reception when possible, and installing mental "filtering devices" to keep other input down to a tolerable, and predictable, level. This behavior, perhaps, goes part of the way to explaining why no young American pianist in recent memory has emerged into the top echelon of concert performers. There are plenty of opportunities to perform in the U.S., but no educated, receptive audience on a larger level for whom to play. How could there be? The overabundance of conflicting expert opinion has created a paralysis of taste. Audiences don't know what to like anymore.

The music press contributes to the din. To follow music news today, in print and on the Web, is to experience every conceivable side of every imaginable issue. Some say today's pianists lack personality, though, according to others, the level of playing in competitions has never been higher. Many in the music press feel that competitions themselves are to blame for a lack of depth and profundity. Why, then, is there so much coverage of them? Are all pianists of the younger generation inferior to those of the past? Are there any with the potential to be counted among the greats?

Awadagin Pratt may be one young artist with the talent and strength of character to make his mark. Pratt first drew renown for his victory in the 1992 Naumberg International Piano Competition, followed two years later with an Avery Fisher Career Grant. His initial triumph was something of a surprise, even to him. He was a recent graduate of Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory, the first in that school's history to earn certificates in violin and piano, as well as a graduate diploma in conducting. Undecided about which career path to follow, he had entered the competition in an ironical spirit, and almost pulled out at the last minute.

A certain kind of individualism has been part of Pratt's makeup from the beginning. In the years since his Naumberg win, Pratt has, in some ways, followed the path of the traditional up-and-coming young virtuoso. He has performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, and in Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Appearances have been made with most of the nation's major orchestras, and at important summer festivals, including Ravinia, Blossom, Caramoor, and at the Hollywood Bowl. Pratt has also received an unusual amount of attention from the mainstream press, including articles in Newsweek and USA Today. The focus in these features has been as much on his unconventional appearance and demeanor as on his music-making. It's not surprising. There aren't many other pianists performing in colorfully patterned T-shirts and dreadlocks, a look borrowed from the tennis player, Yannick Noah. Nor are there many other African-American pianists playing classical music, seated on a hand-carved wooden stool.

But to view Pratt as some kind of poster boy for hip multi-culturalism is simplistic. He is part of no trend, representative of no politically correct credo. There is a probing mind behind his musical decisions, unconventional though they may be. This was what I wanted to uncover in our interview, which took place in May, 1998 during his appearance at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.

I won't begin by asking you why you prefer to sit unusually low, on a wooden stool, rather than the conventional piano bench.

(Laughing) Thank you.

But we'll get to it later! Listening to your latest compact disc, Live from South Africa, I was struck by the strength of the chords. They sound hewn from granite. I don't remember noticing such strong sonorities on your earlier recordings.

It was an incredible, emotional experience being there. Perhaps that colors the recording, which was done live from the stage of the Opera House in Capetown. Walking down the street, I saw more diverse shades of skin and ethnicity than you can imagine. There were people who couldn't even look at me, as a person or as a concert pianist, and others who were unaware of their own racism. I met people ranging from former army officers to pioneers in the fight against apartheid.

I also met Desmond Tutu. The American consul belonged to Tutu's church, and took me to an ecumenical service there. Breakfast followed in the basement. It was the same church that had served as the headquarters of the anti-apartheid movement. At the meal, I sat right across from Tutu. It was a beautiful experience, in all senses.

What did you observe of musical life there?

It's been very isolated, although there has been lots of influence from the British and more recently, the Eastern Europeans. But I didn't always agree with what they thought was a high standard.

I'm interested in your repertoire on the Live from South Africa disc. Starting with Franck and ending with Bach, with Rachmaninoff, Brahms, and more Bach (original and transcribed) in between. How do you choose pieces?

They have to have some sort of resonance to me personally. They have be works that express, that evoke something more than themselves. Music and art are about expressing some sort of joy about all states of experience a celebration, even, of those states. I tend to like pieces that have some kind of gravity to them, allowing us to see inside ourselves, so that we can see past ourselves. These works let us know that we come from the same place and feel the same things that Beethoven, Brahms, or Schubert were concerned about in their daily lives, no matter where we live, in the U.S., South Africa, or South America. It's all the same issues.

The word "spiritual" comes to mind, or "questing." But your concerto repertoire is a little more standard.

Yes. And when I tried to broaden, I went in the direction of more Beethoven! The only one that's out of the mainstream is the Saint-Saëns No. 4. I heard it on the radio, and just loved the tune in the fourth movement. There are some beautiful, lyrical phrases. But the Grieg Concerto is the only concerto I had to learn that I didn't choose myself. But when I started playing it, I liked it.

So often concerto repertoire choice is conductor-driven, rehearsal-time driven.

Exactly. Concerto repertoire is slightly less interesting to me. There is a finite number of concertos that I am really interested in, although there are many other works I'm sure that I will play and be committed to. Whereas the repertoire for recitals is unending.

Once I interviewed a well-known impresario who told me he couldn't sell piano recitals for love or money anymore. Audiences wouldn't come. Has that been true for you?

I'm still playing a fair number of recitals, more than other people, but I understand that it's difficult. Everything in life is cyclical, a pendulum swing. I believe recitals will come back. Nothing really goes off the map forever. Bell bottoms, for example.

I enjoyed reading the reviews of your concerts. Your interpretations are often criticized for being "strange," or praised for being wonderfully "unique." Is that how you see yourself?

I admire Glenn Gould tremendously, because his whole life and career reinforced ideas I had about the validity of my interpretations and my way of living my life. When I was at Peabody, I was playing the violin, conducting, and practicing piano. Everyone told me that I shouldn't do it, that I should concentrate on one thing. But I wanted to do it my own way. It was nice to see someone else, like Gould, who broke the rules and still sustained interest. Leonard Bernstein was another musician I was really into, though not as a pianist. Because his interpretations seemed so imaginative and, at the same time, true to the score. And he was musically unafraid.

What other people expect or anticipate has never been an issue in my adult life. I can't begin to understand what reviewers are thinking, their frames of reference, their missions. Sometimes even good reviewers miss the point because of their own preconceptions. What's ironic is that I think most people in the audience get it. The guys here said that all the stage hands are coming back tonight to hear my concert, even though they aren't paid to be working. They're coming just to listen.

I gained a lot by becoming expert in three areas of performance, playing the violin, the piano, and conducting. By studying all three, I would get lots of musical input, sometimes five different opinions on the meaning of the one phrase. I would be playing the same work, first on violin, then on piano. It was like, "Wow! There is so much beauty, and so many ways to see it." There are only points-of-view, no absolute right or wrong. My own intelligent, well-informed opinion is as valid as anyone else's.

My interpretations are text-driven. I find a lot of things in the texture of a piece and its structure. To me, it seems as if other people aren't paying attention. But I don't necessarily follow every marking verbatim.

So you're not interested in stylistic correctness?

I wouldn't say that. But it's all about communication. The thing is to take the ideas as written in the score and re-create them. There is an element of freedom, emanating from the performer's ability to improvise. I have a hard time believing that Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt played the pieces exactly as written.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that they did not, at least in the case of the latter two. Does improvisation influence your way of studying a score? How do you go about it?

Not improvisation, per se, but I work very freely. It takes me a while to decide which repertoire I want to be doing. I spend lots of time reading through stuff, asking myself, do I want to live in this world for a while? By the time I start learning the piece, I have already gone through it many times, over a period of time. I have an idea of what I want, and then I start pulling out details.

For instance, I learned Pictures at an Exhibition this last summer. I was surprised to find how much pure compositional craft there was in it, more than I had anticipated. I enjoyed learning the shape of the piece. This is the fun of learning, always finding something different and unexpected.

It can be fun taking the pieces out into the world, too. It's interesting working with conductors. Some just say, "Go for it, whatever you want to do." Others have their own ideas that they bring to the table. A third group is dictatorial. I do my best with the middle group. I have had some nice collaborations.

It's interesting to hear you talk about conducting, and conductors. Do you have plans to conduct more in the future?

Eventually, I'd like to have a parallel career as a conductor. Being a conductor is why I started in music as a kid. I've conducted a couple of Beethoven First and Third Concertos from the keyboard already, along with a few purely orchestral concerts from the podium.

I'm curious about how you launched your career. You've said some critical things about competitions, and your whole concept of interpretive freedom seems to go against the spirit of standardization that we are told imbues them. And yet you won the Naumberg.

It's a funny story. I sent in my tape after reading a press release from the Naumberg office that said something like, in spite of all the competition bashing going on, in William Kapell's honor we are proud to announce the almost-50th competition. I found that intriguing, so I wrote back saying that, in the same spirit, I was entering.

I had been doing all kinds of stuff to avoid staying in school the next year. I was up for a teaching job in Minnesota, and then I was a finalist in the old Affiliate Artists Conducting Program. I'd been in Louisville for a conducting audition with the orchestra there, which was about a week and a half before the Naumberg began. I came back to Baltimore and began work on the pieces for the competition. It was all the pieces I had studied during the year, the two recitals, the concertos, and learning a new piece by George Rochberg.

It wasn't going well. I'd spend all these hours, and then go in the next day and it felt like nothing had happened. I had really horrible allergies, too. So I said, I'm not going to do this. That night, I went out with friends and got completely drunk, and when I got up the next morning, my nose was clear, and the music was there. So I decided, maybe everything will be fine, and I went ahead.

It's true, though, that I had some bad experiences with competitions. I had been a finalist for the American Pianists Association, and most people thought I should have been among the final three. Everyone except the judges, I guess. Allen Hughes was one of them. He said that I shouldn't enter competitions, that my playing was too individual. So, I thought, this is an influential critic, working for The New York Times. Maybe he's right. Certainly, I had experienced minimal success.

But it came to a point. It was like "Wow!" I'm 26, and I don't know too many conductors who will just sit down and listen to an unknown pianist. It felt like there was no option except to enter.

When people criticize competitions, I always wonder what they propose as an alternative. What is a young pianist supposed to do?

I don't have an answer to that.

How did your career develop after winning the prize? What was your plan?

In the beginning, I won, and people from orchestras heard me. I played something like 20 concerts in that first season, all over everywhere. The phone was ringing off the hook. It was semi-chaotic.

It must have been overwhelming.

It was. When I entered, I had asked myself, do I think I can start playing concerts and I answered, yes, I'm ready. When stuff started rolling in, I tried to be very mellow about it, say "this is cool," and just play. It wasn't easy, though. I didn't have any control. There was no plan. I was going from Florida to Seattle, back and forth.

When I signed with IMG, we didn't really discuss a lot, either. So to answer your original question, I have no idea. Concert planning is driven a lot by artistic administrators making decisions about whom they want, and what fits into their overall season. No one has enough control to totally influence programming. Some artists have a lot of control, but most don't. Which is bothersome.

With your background in violin, you probably do a lot of chamber music.

I'm going to do more. I'm actually the Artistic Director of a Festival near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It's been going on for three years now. The first year was kind of by accident. I was supposed to play with the St. Lawrence Quartet. They couldn't do it, so the manager said, "Why don't you just bring in some friends?" So that's how it evolved. This year, I am working with a singer, and playing some new works by a composer named Teddy Shapiro. We are doing some of his songs, and we've commissioned him to write a work for soprano and piano trio.

I'm curious about your practice routine. Do you spend a lot of time at the piano?

Yes. I do most of my work at home. When on tour, I try to carve out as much time in the hall as possible. I'd say 80 percent of concert venues don't have warm-up pianos. It takes a lot of negotiation to get in the hall itself, but I have trouble practicing on upright pianos because the spacing is different. Sometimes, before a concert, I practice just for reassurance. I'm not superstitious, but I hate to sit around and wait. I spent too much time at competitions doing that. It sometimes makes the people in charge nervous, since I'm nowhere to be found until the last minute. But I feel better that way.

I feel I have to ask you about how you sit when playing. Are you paying homage to Gould with your low stance at the keyboard?

Not really. I feel it helps me relax. My wrists used to be very tense, and now they're not.

And playing along with the orchestra during tuttis in which the composer wrote no piano part?

It goes back to my interest in musical texture and form, reinforcing certain things and highlighting certain sounds.

What do you listen to? You mentioned hearing a piece on the radio and wanting to learn it.

I grew up listening almost exclusively to classical music. In our house, pop music hardly existed. Now I listen to about 80 percent classical music, 13 percent jazz, and the rest, whatever.

Do you listen to other pianists? Or do you feel that corrupts your own vision?

I like some contemporary pianists. I was doing Beethoven's op.101 a while back. There were some things about it that were perplexing to me. I was reading a lot of historical and analytical stuff about it, and listening to Brendel and Gilels. I'd listen in spots, thinking, yes, that kind of makes sense, reaffirming that I was still in the ballpark. Or at least I could say, it was confusing or not clear to others, too. I always find that my eyes are bigger than my stomach, as they say, because I buy a lot of stuff that I don't listen to. Especially piano music, because I don't think about it. I listen mainly to orchestral music and I've been into Schubert lieder a lot recently, just going crazy on that.

I didn't know that you had any Schubert in your repertoire.

I've loved Schubert forever, but the only thing I've played is the first Impromptu. But when I was in school, I used to start every practice session reading through a work by Schubert. I know a lot of his music, but somehow have never sat down and formally learned anything. I really want to do some this summer, so that's what I'm working on now.

It sounds as if musical decision-making is a slow, thoughtful process for you.

It is. If I make a mistake with a program, I have to live with it for a long time. Learning is a process of searching, really, and I don't want to play a piece until I'm sure my search is at least partially complete, in some type of poetic form.

A personal identification with a work is very important to me. I don't have a desire to do all the works of Beethoven. I've thought about doing every sonata, but there are some that I don't really like. But that can change. In a way, I admire someone like Leslie Howard who can play every work by Liszt with conviction and make the investment of time and energy to do it.

One does understand Liszt better as an artist by knowing everything he wrote, good, bad, and in-between.

True. I'd like to know all the works of Liszt. I might read through all of them, but I personally feel comfortable performing only the works I feel most committed to.

Do you feel that there is a portion of the repertoire that is unduly neglected? I notice you play several pieces by Franck.

I love playing both the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, and the Harold Bauer transcription of the Prelude, Fugue, and Variation. I've played that one for years.

I love it, too. It's a better piece than some of the works originally written for piano.

It is. But I haven't done anything that's really obscure. I'm not on any kind of mission, although I like reading through all kinds of music. It can be really funny, actually. Sometimes I find what I think is a really cool unknown piece, only to learn it's not obscure at all. I did that with Schumann's F-sharp Romance. Paul Schenly told me that everybody plays it.

Everybody used to play it, anyway. I believe that it's one of the early examples of writing on three staves. It's a beautiful piece.

Maybe I'll record it, then.

I saw an announcement that you were going to record Beethoven's first and third concertos.

Recordings are so tricky. Not the making of them, but getting them organized, arranging orchestras and dates, just coping with all the details. The pressure to show a profit on everything is so strong. Sometimes, even a classical recording that sells very well returns only a fraction of its cost. My numbers are pretty good, luckily. But to answer your question, I'm not sure if or when that Beethoven recording will happen.

Besides Gould and Bernstein, who have been your mentors and role models?

I talk important decisions over with friends, but I am very independent. I'm not sure where that came from. I think it was family-unit related. We were expected to do everything and do it well. There was no other option. There was a point when I said, I'm an intelligent person, and my decision is as good as the next person's. And I know myself better. In school, people would say, you should learn this way, or that piece. I thought, well, I'm learning more repertoire in spades than they are and I know every side of the stuff I'm really interested in. This can only be good for me. So the next step was to find a place that would let me do that.

I had a funny relationship with my piano teacher, Robert Weirich. One time I said to him, "I know I've learned a lot from you. I can't make a list of specific things, but you steered the ship." I didn't learn only music from him. In school, I tended to take certain things personally, and wage mini-wars over them. Much of my rage was justified, because there were stupid things happening. But I was exhausting myself fighting and winning battles that probably weren't worth the energy. Bob Weirich taught me to pick the battles that really matter, in places that I can really leave my mark. It's a lesson I've never forgotten.