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AN EXTRAVAGANT TALENT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article about pianist Awadagin Pratt in the Sunday Sun magazine incorrectly reported the cost of tickets for seniors to Mr. Pratt's Saturday evening recital in Columbia. Tickets for the recital are $13, or $8 for full-time students.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The story's been told so many times at the Peabody Conservatory that it has attained the status of myth: One evening in 1986, a student notices a powerfully built, young black man enter one of the school's practice rooms. She immediately calls campus security. Security arrives and the young man has to identify himself. He's Awadagin Pratt, a new student recently arrived from the University of Illinois.

It isn't the last time that Pratt will be judged on the basis of his appearance, made even more striking in years to come by dreadlocks. In his years at Peabody, he will be stopped repeatedly by police in Mount Vernon and asked for identification.

"I'm young, I look different, I don't have the skin color most concert artists have," said Pratt last fall during a talk that preceded a recital in his hometown of Normal, Ill. "Some people are excited, some are suspicious. But in the final analysis, all that matters is what happens here." He pointed to the Steinway on the stage.

Understandably, there's been a lot of curiosity about this young man, who looks like a reggae singer, who gives concerts in jeans and T-shirts, who sits so low at the piano with his legs thrust forward that he looks as if he's sitting in a sports car, and who can play with such originality that he makes familiar music sound if the ink was still wet on the page.

The 27-year-old Awadagin (pronounced Ow-wah-daj-in) Pratt, who will perform this Saturday at Howard Community College and next week with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is the most talked about young pianist in North America. In 1992 when he won the Naumburg Prize, he became the first African-American instrumentalist to win a competition prestigious enough to propel him into the international spotlight.

While many black singers have achieved world fame, not since Andre Watts' debut 30 years ago has a black classical instrumentalist been the focus of so much media attention. In the months since his Naumburg victory, Pratt has been the subject of dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, been interviewed repeatedly on radio and television and been followed around the country by four film crews.

The Naumburg Foundation, which has awarded prizes since 1926, is a better predictor of talent than the glitzier, better-known Van Cliburn Competition. Past winners among pianists have included (in chronological order): Jorge Bolet, William Kapell, Abby Simon, Eugene Istomin, Andre-Michel Shub and Stephen Hough. All went on to (or currently enjoy) important international careers. But within two years of winning the prize, none of them was as far along in his career as Pratt: He has been invited to perform with such important orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and he has signed a record contract with the prestigious EMI label.

"Awadagin won the Naumburg because he's so talented," says Lucy Mann, the foundation's director. "But the publicity and opportunities that followed happened because there was a big hole waiting for someone like him -- a young black person with an extravagant talent."

To orchestras trying to reach out to younger and more diverse audiences, the handsome, personable Pratt arrived like an answer to a prayer. His concerts attract an unusually large number of young people, many of them African-Americans. (Sales for his BSO appearances on Jan. 14, 15 and 16 have been so brisk that all three concerts are expected to sell out.)

"Black people don't come backstage to say, 'It was good to see you out there' -- at least not in so many words," Pratt says. "But it's obvious that my presence is encouraging to many people, particularly kids."

Executives at EMI Classics, which signed Pratt last summer, couldn't agree more. It was not lost on them that in Pratt the company might have a gold mine on its hands. The company also records the British violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy, 36, whose punk looks, penchant for clownish dress, and ingratiatingly off-the-wall concert behavior have helped to make him a crossover star, appealing as much to pop as classical audiences.

"It was clear to us that [Pratt] was unique. He was a black kid in dreadlocks who plays the piano beautifully," says Lou Caronia, the vice president of EMI-America's classical division who signed Pratt to make three records in three years. "The way he appears and the attention he will draw is part of the package. But he's all seriousness when he's on the stage."

Serious, but scarcely conventional. When he walked out on stage last October for a recital at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., the audience's surprise was palpable. He was dressed in tight jeans and an equally tight, brightly colored T-shirt that left little about his powerful torso and arms to the imagination.

Then there was his program. For a pianist so young to tackle two of the most profound works in the literature, Beethoven's opus 109 and 110 sonatas, required considerable chutzpah. And the second half of the program, which consisted entirely of transcriptions of Bach, also raised eyebrows. Performing transcriptions -- virtuoso adaptations for the piano of music originally written for other instruments -- has been unfashionable for years. Pratt's decision to conclude with Busoni's transcription of Bach's Chaconne for solo violin suggested to some a flagrant disregard of good taste and programming decorum.

Afterward, one realized that Pratt had played almost an entire evening of thickly textured contrapuntal pieces. He seems to revel in such music (in which several lines operate almost independently of each other), particularly in fugues -- a form in which a melody is developed, echoed and overlapped in several different voices.

L Much of Pratt's repertory contains works that end in fugues.

"It must have something to do with the way I live," the pianist said with laughter a few months ago, during a dinner at a Baltimore restaurant in which his meal -- shrimp, a Caesar salad, barbecued ribs, broiled rockfish, several vegetables and vanilla ice cream -- suggested an enormous appetite for contrapuntal variety.

"I like to have the radio going and the TV going when I practice and often I have both things on when I read," he continued. "Contrapuntal music tends to have a quality of several speaking voices that I find very attractive. I like a lot of things happening at once. That would be something that's true of my life in general."

Pratt is an accomplished tennis player (he ranked among the best juniors in the Midwest in his teens) and an expert chess player. Beginning in grade school and continuing through high school, he regularly won prizes in dramatic productions, in debates and even in spelling bees.

To understand how Pratt became such a remarkable achiever is to understand his childhood in the town of Normal, where his mother, Mildred, is a retired professor of sociology, and his father, Theodore, is a retired professor of physics (both at Illinois State University). Situated 100 miles southwest of Chicago, Normal is in the heart of the state, a place of flat vistas and seemingly endless cornfields.

In Normal, Awadagin and his younger sister, Menah, were the only black children in their schools. Their African names -- chosen by their Sierra Leone-born father -- set them apart further. They were encouraged by their parents to excel at whatever they did. A typical day for Awadagin and Menah began at 6 a.m. with a two-hour drill on the tennis courts. After school, there would be another drill. There were weekly music lessons on both piano and violin, and each child had to practice at least an hour every day on each instrument.

Their mother, a small, handsome woman with graying hair, says, "We felt a sense of responsibility about raising black children. They have to be as prepared as possible to face life and to learn that to be considered as good as others they have to be better."

At least one person in Normal worried that Awadagin might be working too hard at too many things to master one discipline completely.

"He was riding on so many horses that I was concerned," says Gellert Modos, professor of piano at Illinois State and Pratt's first influential teacher. "The musical ideas were wonderful; the pianistic development was behind his thinking and he wasn't able to do everything he wanted to do."

At 16, Pratt entered the University of Illinois in Urbana on a violin scholarship. He had wanted a double major in violin and piano, but had failed his initial piano audition. His best friend was another violin student, whose mother happened to be on the piano faculty.

"A lot of things were not in place in his playing," says Daisy de Luca, who had been the chief assistant of the legendary Magda Tagliaferro at the Paris Conservatory. "But I could see a huge talent. He had big, big ideas. He would try anything -- no matter how crazy."

With de Luca's coaching, Pratt was accepted as a piano student at the University of Illinois. But after four years, he decided that he wanted to be at a conservatory where he could concentrate on music. Pratt arrived at Peabody in 1986 as a double major -- violin and piano. He added conducting in his second year and eventually became the first student in Peabody's history to earn performer's certificates in all three areas.

"It was fearless and for someone that age, remarkable," says Robert Weirich of Pratt's entrance piano audition. "You can't tell most piano students apart at that age. Awadagin was already Awadagin. In his years with me, he was always experimenting -- things went crazy sometimes, but they were never dull."

His first year was significant in two respects. Pratt surprised himself and almost everyone else by sharing first prize in the annual Peabody concerto competition with pianist Kevin Kenner, who was considered Peabody's top gun. That led Pratt to believe that he had a brighter future as a pianist than as a violinist. And he began studying with Frederick Prausnitz, who encouraged the young musician's ambition to be a conductor.

Pratt pursued Prausnitz around the building until he admitted the young violinist-pianist into his class.

"It was impossible to say no to that warmth and charm," Prausnitz says. "I knew he was special the first time he got in front of an orchestra. From the moment he got up there, he made the musicians make music. He's got the two things a conductor needs: a tremendous mind for music and a tremendous gift for people."

Pratt conducted his first concerts with a professional orchestra last summer at a music festival in Canada.

"I'd like to do more conducting as soon as possible," he says. "My manager suggested forming a relationship with an orchestra as a piano soloist and starting to conduct from the keyboard."

Some musicians believe Pratt would be better off as a conductor simply because of the flaws in his piano playing. In 1990, he flunked an audition to enter the Artist's Diploma program in piano -- the school's seal of approval for a professional career. But Peabody's dean of students overrode the 3-2 vote against Pratt, provisionally accepting him into the program.

At issue, say two of the professors who voted against him, was his pianistic competency. He apparently had given a performance of Brahms' "Handel Variations" that was riddled with wrong notes.

"There are 15-20 students at the school who play better than Awadagin -- even if they haven't got his creativity or originality," says one of the professors. "In my letter to the dean I said I admired everything he did in his brain, but I wanted him to take responsibility for his piano playing."

"It wasn't my best playing," Pratt says of the audition. "But the [rejection] decision seemed pretty dumb. I had already won two competitions at the school." (A few years after sharing first prize in the concerto competition, he had won outright the prize for the best recital.)

"In fact, the year just before the Naumburg I flunked two more auditions," Pratt adds, with a hint of pride in his voice.

The cracks in Pratt's technical armor didn't go unnoticed at the Naumburg.

"We all felt that we were not listening to someone with infinite pianistic polish," says Bryce Morrison, a well-known British critic who was one of the Naumburg judges. "But he had a gigantic musical personality with enormous force behind it."

Morrison says the decisive factor in Pratt's victory was his performance of Liszt's "Funerailles."

When he performed the piece earlier this year in Normal, it was easy to see what so impressed the judges. It was a reading of genuine tragic grandeur that began with soft, sustained playing that created a sensation of utter darkness. As the performance continued, Pratt created a sense of continuous crescendo that had the effect of slowly reversing a dimmer. Bit by bit the lights brightened. By the time Pratt reached the roaring left hand octaves at the climax, he was creating sonorities that must have resembled those the poet John Milton imagined in "Paradise Lost" when Satan creates his palace, Pandemonium: It was an inferno of light and sound that overwhelmed the senses.

A musician's personality is usually an index to the way he plays, and Pratt -- who began piano lessons at 6 and violin lessons at 9 -- is a risk-taker who almost invariably comes to a piece of music with his own point of view. And he expresses disdain for pianists who play it safe, which most tend to do in an age in which heavily edited recordings have led audiences to expect note-perfect playing.

But he also has a streak of stubbornness that explains why, despite the efforts of every teacher he's ever had, Pratt persists in sitting so low -- only 14 inches off the floor -- at the keyboard. His idol, the late Glenn Gould, who sat similarly low, inspired him to experiment with seating positions.

"I felt more comfortable, more relaxed," Pratt says with a puckish smile. "I liked the proximity to the scene of the crime."

No piano teacher of any note has ever recommended such a position.

"It's a lousy way to play the instrument and it's a sure guarantee that he'll have hand and arm problems reasonably soon," says one prominent pianist, who points out that Gould suffered terribly from such afflictions.

Some of Pratt's technical problems, particularly in fast and soft passages, may result from his sitting position. Loud playing demands striking the key quickly, and playing softly requires depressing it slowly. Quick, light playing, therefore, depends on bTC combining rapid lateral movement with slow vertical motion. A low position that puts the arms below the keyboard gives the pianist the additional difficulty of fighting the force of gravity in order to depress the key slowly.

"Really?" asks Pratt when he hears of this objection to the way he sits. He walks over to the piano in his living room and plays a fast and soft passage from Beethoven's opus 109 -- one that seemed to trouble him in his Eastman recital. As he did before, he smudges the passage.

The pianist looks up quizzically, as if to say, "What's the big deal -- and is it really worth fussing about?"

"Clean playing is not such a great thing," he says. "It's not as if it's the desired end result."

He pauses and begins to laugh.

"You have to be able to recognize the tune," he adds, his words punctuated by more laughter. He then turns serious.

"I mean it's the essence of the music that has to be primary, right?"

His tone suggests that the meaning of music is nothing less than a life-and-death matter.

"That's why he'll become a conductor -- maybe not in the next year or two, but eventually," says Peabody's Fred Prausnitz. "Conducting will be better for him because, sooner or later, a world-class instrumentalist has to pay painstaking attention to nitty-gritty details and these aren't particularly interesting things. conductor's first instrument is his own head, and Awadagin's got vision and an ability to deal with people that are far more important than the minutiae involved in cosmetically pure piano playing."

Pratt's future may be on the podium, but for the next few years, he will have to sustain himself by playing the piano.

"Every pianist concentrates on the things he's good at and I don't think we're ever going to see much in the way of fast Chopin etudes from Awadagin," says Robert Weirich. "But he's reached a stage where he's beyond being judged on competence. Here's this guy who's very different from anyone else and he's bringing people [to the concert hall] who wouldn't otherwise be there. The whole music world stands to profit."

STEPHEN WIGLER is The Sun's music critic.

PRATT PERFORMS

Awadagin Pratt will play at Smith Auditorium, Howard Community College, Jan. 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $13 general admission and $8 for seniors. Call (410) 715-0034 or (301) 596-6203 for more information.

With the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Pratt will play the Grieg Piano Concerto at the Meyerhoff Hall on Jan. 14 and 15 at 8:15 p.m. and Jan. 16 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $45, $9.50 for students. Call (410) 783-8000 for more information.

PRATT ON RECORD

To hear excerpts from Awadagin Pratt's first album, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County). Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6177 after you hear the greeting.

CORRECTION
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