The last time pianist Awadagin Pratt performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — more than 20 years ago — his reputation was firmly that of a top-notch interpreter of canonical composers: Think Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and their ilk.
Now, upon his return, Pratt is bringing something new: a Jessie Montgomery piano concerto nearly hot off the presses, and, with it, the desire to contribute to the literature for his instrument.
“I think that it’s important in a lot of performers’ legacies [to consider] how many pieces they’ve added to the repertoire,” Pratt said in an interview. “Performers come and go. It’s composers, their names and their music, that stick around.”
Pratt may be 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 lately been working with. While her concerto was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it belongs to a larger, album-length project Pratt developed called “Still Point,” in which seven composers respond to “Burnt Norton,” the first poem in T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”
Many musicians likely count this poem among their favorites. Scholars have speculated whether the poems were Eliot’s own response to music — specifically Beethoven’s “late” quartets No. 12-16 — and much of the language is directly or indirectly musical, meditating on time, movement and stillness.
Some of the composers Pratt commissioned chose to set the text. (The album, underwritten by the Art of the Piano Foundation and due to be released in 2023 on New Amsterdam Records, will also feature the talents of Grammy-winning vocal group Roomful of Teeth and the chamber orchestra A Far Cry.) Others, like Montgomery, opted for a purely musical interpretation. But Pratt indicated that the poem’s influence is still recognizable, particularly when considering the lines, “At the still point of the turning world … there the dance is.”
“The dance quality of [Montgomery’s piece] is evident, the turning quality,” Pratt said. “There’s a figure that kind of turns around on itself — that’s one of the main themes. While that’s happening, the piano has this beautiful melody that also turns on itself.”
Montgomery’s concerto received its world premiere just a little more than a month ago, but the response, according to Pratt, is already gratifying. “It’s one thing to start playing a piece and realize there are parts of it that are really beautiful,” he said. “It’s quite another to realize it’s having an effect on people.”
Part of that effect is in the subtext. In commissioning the composers for “Still Point,” Pratt said that it was important to “have the African-American voice represented” — especially in work that is not directly about the experience of being Black. (Four of the seven commissioned composers are Black, including Montgomery.)
“I think it’s important, whether it’s in philosophy or any artistic endeavor, that there can be commentary on things that are firmly in the canon — that African American and underrepresented people have the authority to comment on things that are not solely particular 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.
If you go
Awadagin Pratt performs with Christian Reif and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra May 5 at the Music Center at Strathmore and May 6-8 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Tickets start at $25. Digital access is $10.