Meeting a piano 'hero'; Port Discovery program introduces young musician to a new generation of fans


Pianist Awadagin Pratt performs at prestigious concert halls across the globe and has won some of the most important piano competitions in the world.

Yesterday, the celebrated musician focused his full attention on the young audience members who sat cross-legged before him at Baltimore's Port Discovery children's museum.

Heads tilted upward, the children gazed at Pratt, who leaned against a gleaming grand piano.

"Of all the interests I had, music was the thing that had to be in my life every day," said the pianist.

"Music communicates something about the human existence, whether it's joy, sadness, wistfulness," he said during a pre-performance chat with the children. "I translate that from the paper to the instrument."

Pratt's world-class playing clearly impressed Juvon Price, 8, of Elkridge.

"He knows the notes because he practices and practices," she said.

Pratt, who was in town for three performances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this weekend, made a side trip yesterday to Port Discovery to kick off the museum's monthly "Hero" series.

"Our Hero program is based on people who believe in themselves, have accepted challenges and risks and achieved their dreams, whatever they may be," said Bryn Parchman, director of marketing at Port Discovery, which has three levels of educational experiences and exhibits.

Among the other heroes chosen by the museum are Beth Botsford, the Olympic gold medalist swimmer from Timonium; Rosie O'Donnell, the television talk show host; Dr. Ben Carson, Johns Hopkins Hospital brain surgeon; and Bea Gaddy, Baltimore homeless advocate.

Pratt, 33, is the first of the heroes to visit the $32 million museum and easily fits Port Discovery's definition.

In 1992, he was the first African-American to win the Naumburg Award, a top international piano competition. He's known for taking risks in his style of playing. And his unconventional concert attire -- casual pants and colorful, open-neck shirts instead of a tuxedo -- sets him apart from other classical musicians.

A children's museum was an unlikely setting for a classical music concert. Folks ate hot dogs and pretzels. Hovering above the scene was a woman on stilts in a genie costume, granting wishes.

Pratt was introduced by Rheda Becker, narrator for the BSO's Children's Series.

"You are the very first people to be here in the Hall of Heroes, and we have a live hero," Becker said. "I first met him when he was a student at Peabody, the very famous school of music we have in Baltimore."

The pianist captivated the youthful group with his warmth and easy demeanor.

During a question-and-answer session, the children peppered Pratt with questions about his childhood, his favorite music and his other interests -- tennis, basketball and jazz.

He explained that his passion for the piano relates to its versatility.

"You can make low notes and high notes, and play really elegantly, like this," said Pratt, as he plopped down on the keyboard, to the delight of his listeners.

He also reminded the group that dreams require hard work.

"It's hard to play an instrument you want to excel at," said Pratt, who told his audience that he practices anywhere from two to eight hours a day.

In keeping with his unconventional streak, Pratt sits low at the piano. Under a large "Kid Power" sign, he ended his visit by playing two short pieces for his young listeners -- one by Sergei Rachmaninoff and one by Robert Schumann.

There was no fidgeting.

For a hero, Pratt was pretty down-to-earth, said 12-year-old Lisa Thompson of Columbia.

"He was like a normal person," Lisa said after the performance. "You think they'd be like super-people because they're so good."

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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