Awadagin Pratt is one of the greatest American pianists and conductors of our time. Currently a piano teacher at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music – in addition to his active schedule – his resume is long enough for several lifetimes. He was the first triple major at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, earning degrees in violin, piano, and conducting. He is particularly known for his Bach. (All things Considered Arun Rath’s favourite? His takes on Beethoven.)
Rath spoke with Pratt ahead of his performance at the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, Sept. 22 — Pratt’s first appearance with the orchestra, where he will perform a piece that was written for him. It’s the first evening of the new BSO season.
The following is a slightly edited transcript.
Arun Rat: So, before I talk about tonight’s concert and this piece of music that was written for you, I want to talk about a multimedia piece involving a movie and a performance that was played recently. Can you tell us about “Black in America?” What does this depict?
Awadagin Pratt: Wow, okay. Well, this piece that I originally wrote as a podcast after the murder of George Floyd. In the media, there were allusions to crime, or their past arrests or something from George Floyd and the allusions to Breonna Taylor’s drug-dealing boyfriend. And every victim was attached to the crimes in some way, like they somehow earned it to be so close to – I don’t know what.
And so it occurred to me that because it’s so prevalent in the media, that people don’t know or think or aren’t aware that people like me, who have no attachment to crime, have the kind of interactions with the police that I had. And so I wanted to tell this story. So that my concert audiences, the donors, my friends — I don’t really talk about that with my friends. Only people in my orbit would know the volume and nature of interactions I’ve had with police in my lifetime.
And so on the podcast, it started with music and then I talked for a long time. And I go into aspects of the law and the decisions of the Supreme Court on these various issues. And then there is the middle: Liszt’s “Funérailles” plays. And then I speak again. And then there was this little one, Brandenburg 5 bookends a piece.
A friend of mine asked me if it could be played, and it’s probably the sixth or seventh performance I’ve done. I’ve made a few over the past two weeks. And we had commissioned a film for the middle, so where Liszt’s “Funérailles” plays –
Rat : Is it Franz Liszt’s play? And is it funeral music?
Pratt: Yes. It was written for three of his friends who died in an uprising in Hungary, and as a more commemorative piece.
And so Alrick Brown, who’s at NYU, made a movie to go along with the music, which is cool because it’s usually the other way around. But it’s powerful, it’s really powerful. So I interpret either this Bach that I play here, or the Concerto in A major, or the “Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, first movement”, depending on where I play it as the first piece. Then I speak, then the film plays, and I speak, then ends, now, with the last movement of Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin des temps”.
But that’s just ok – I mean, I was jailed overnight when I was a student at Peabody. I was stopped by an officer for running down the street. It is therefore in a way the crux of the central action.
Rat : Wow. Yeah, and I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to throw you off balance by asking a question about this, but I was reading about it just before. And throughout the introduction, when I list your resume, I didn’t include “Black man who grew up in America.” And I was just reading about how you got caught by the police running to music class. It just seems – I don’t know. I mean, it’s not amazing, but it’s just kind of an amazing thing to think about.
Pratt: Yeah. The fact that it’s not amazing is astounding.
Rat : And, well, the other piece of music you mentioned was Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin des temps’, which is a really haunting piece. He wrote it when he was in a Nazi prison camp, didn’t he?
Pratt: Yes, he was in the prison camp. I play the last one, which is for violin and piano. And it’s just a heartbreaking piece of music.
Rat : Is this piece something that will be performed again with the film? This kind of multimedia production?
Pratt: Yeah, I’ve done it not exclusively – maybe it’s exclusively, so far – on college campuses. I play the musical part with student-performers, which is good for the school and the students. So yes, it has a life that I hadn’t foreseen when I composed it.
Rat : We absolutely have to talk about the music we will hear tonight. There’s a piece by Bach, but I really want to hear about this piece that was bought by Jessie Montgomery. This was written for you?
Pratt: Yes, it was written for me. The piece was commissioned by the Art of the Piano Foundation and nine co-sponsoring orchestras. It had its premiere with Hilton Head Symphony in late March, April. And we have performances with St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Colorado, Indianapolis, Denver – I’m not going to cover them all.
This will be the 10th performance. And the play is very “audience friendly”. But beyond that, people are moved. So it’s really rewarding to play.
Rat : And tell us a bit about the workmanship and the kind of sound it has. What is Jessie Montgomery’s composition style? Is it called “Rounds”?
Pratt: This is called “Rounds”. It is for piano and string orchestra. And, you know, Jessie is a violinist, so as far as strings go, they like to play them.
It is also idiomatic for the piano. And there’s an interaction of the material, I would say, a bit like in a lot of Bach, where the material moves through the voices — and I see a lot of Bach because that’s not the case in this concerto that I am necessarily playing. But there’s a similarity there because sometimes I have what’s considered a lot of material, but mostly I have this kind of backing figure in certain parts of the piece. It’s a little hard to describe, but the melody, in and of itself, is this “bee-bum-bee-bum” – this kind of delightful figure. And I have these execution notes through that. And there are several different sessions that repeat, and then there’s a middle section that’s truly hauntingly beautiful.
Rat : It looks awesome. It’s always exciting to hear new music. Awadagin Pratt, it was such a pleasure speaking with you. I want to thank you, and also as a longtime fan, thank you for so much great music over the years.
Pratt: It’s very nice of you. Thanks. Glad to chat with you, and here’s more.
Rat : Awadagin Pratt is a conductor, pianist, artist and professor of piano at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. He is performing this evening with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Jessie Montgomery. It’s GBH All things Considered.