Born in Pittsburgh, PA. Education: Studied piano and violin at the University of Illinois and went on to graduate from the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. Addresses: Home--Albuquerque, New Mexico. Record company--EMI Music, 21700 Oxnard St., #700, Woodland Hills, CA 91367.
Pianist Awadagin Pratt is an engaging and exciting new presence in the world of classical music, where his passionate playing and unique interpretations have invigorated works by such composers as Brahms, Beethoven, Franck, and Liszt. Pratt, however, has garnered as much attention for superficialities that set him apart on the classical concert stage as he has for his musical prowess. First of all, he is young--in his early 30s--and he is black. He wears his shoulder-length hair in dreadlocks. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, far from the glitter. When he plays, he sits at a low- riding 14-inch bench. And he is likely to perform in T-shirt or a black shirt and pants accented with a colorful tie rather than the more traditional tuxedo. Pratt--whose first name is pronounced ah- wah-DODGE-in--told Newsweek's Yahlin Chang that people who learn he is a musician often assume he is part of a rock band. That is something, however, he finds uninteresting. "I don't have an interest in pop music," he said. "By and large, I find it to be boring. Rhythmically boring, harmonically boring, and melodically possibly interesting but for a very short time."
Pratt burst onto the scene in 1992, when he won the prestigious Naumburg International Piano Competition at Lincoln Center in New York City. He was the first African-American to win an international instrumental competition and first black instrumentalist since Andre Watts to get a recording contract with a major label. He is described as an independent and strong-willed man who has brought a challenging style and a sensual, intellectual virtuosity to classical music. "Pratt plays with a full-bodied intensity that can be at turns intimate and grandly heart-wrenching," Chang wrote. "He has a story to tell, and you can hear him agonizing over every twist. . . . Pratt commands your unfailing attention--without ever getting ostentatious."
Robin P. Robinson , writing in Emerge magazine, said Pratt "challenges the establishment and fans alike, forcing them to rethink the way music is perceived and heard." In the New York Times, James Barron called Pratt "a hot young pianist with a big sound and a knack for tackling fast, risky passages." And Robert Mann, president of the Naumburg Foundation, said the young pianist "has a rare gift. Very few artists create a sense that the music is theirs."
Pratt was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Normal, IL, where his father was a physics professor and his mother was a professor of social work at Illinois State University. He began studying piano at age 6 and the violin when he was 9. As a child, however, tennis was more important to Pratt than music--and he was good enough at the game to turn professional. "I was aware that I showed some reasonable level of proficiency (as a musician), but it was never a prodigy-type thing," he told Robinson. "I was much more involved in tennis. My sister and I were both ranked regionally. It wasn't until I was about 16 that I decided to pursue music seriously." Pratt, in fact, appropriated his dreadlock hairstyle from tennis star Yannick Noah.
Pratt enrolled in the University of Illinois to study piano and violin. At age 18, he declared himself financially independent from his parents because they disapproved of his plans to be a performer rather than a music instructor. After three years at Illinois, he prepared to transfer to another institution. The New England Conservatory accepted him as a violinist but not as a pianist, while the Cleveland Institute accepted him as a pianist, but not as a violinist. Pratt elected to attend the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore, where he became the first person in the school's 137-year history to graduate with three areas of concentration: piano, violin and conducting. In 1990, he decided to focus on the piano and conducting--and let the violin go. "It's just that the piano has more repertoire," he said. "There's a much greater selection of music I like."
Pratt's victory in the Naumburg Competition in May 1992--and the $5,000 prize, lucrative 40-city concert tour, and recording contract it brought him--came just in time. He had passed up another competition the previous month because he couldn't scrape together the $60 entrance fee. Even so, he never lost sight of his purpose. After winning Naumburg, Pratt told People magazine: "The audience--the people--you want them to be moved by your music. I always figured if I had that going for me, everything else would work out--regardless of whether someone thought I should cut my hair."
Pratt's repertoire puts a new spin on classic compositions. "He leans toward . . . probing, dense pieces by composers such as Brahms, Franck, and Liszt, rather than the more commercially popular Mozart or Vivaldi," Robinson wrote in Emerge. "Some critics have found Pratt's style and interpretation of the music a bit disconcerting because it doesn't always sound the way they're accustomed to hearing it. The criticism seems not to faze him. As far as he's concerned, no two musicians should be able to play the same piece of music exactly the same way. 'If one does completely play, internalizes the music, and comes to terms with it, without concern for how it will be perceived, it's bound to sound different,'" Pratt told Robinson. " 'I want to leave an audience with a sense of what these pieces of music are all about, why the composers were so moved they had to write it down on paper.'" In his interview with Newsweek's Chang, Pratt said, "I'll listen to five or six recordings (of a composition), and all the musicians are doing the same thing. And the interpretation will make no sense."
Pratt's approach has earned him prestigious awards, critically acclaimed albums, and an invitation to play at the White House in 1994. Following the release of his debut record--called A Long Way from Normal --reviewers raved about his ability to bring fire and freshness to familiar works, including Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. "Pratt has plenty of taste, artistry, and insight, all of which are immediately apparent in his comparatively light- textured, deftly colored rendition of Liszt's Funerailles," Stereo Review magazine opined. "(He) seems to be a rare bird among competition winners: He's at home in the virtuoso repertory but comes across best in more introspective works that require genuine artistry . . . . (T)his is a wonderfully satisfying and promising debut album."
An unavoidable subtext to Pratt's story is his race. "The number of African-American pianists can be counted on one hand," Robinson pointed out. "Until recently, the best-known black soloists have been Leon Bates and Andre Watts, both of whom had established their careers by the time Pratt was born." Pratt's agent, Linda Marder, told one interviewer it was important for Pratt to be "taken seriously as a concert pianist--not qualified as an 'African-American concert pianist.'" On the other hand, Pratt's race carries with it special opportunities and responsibilities. His audiences, for example, are more racially integrated than most that attend classical concerts. And Pratt regularly plays for and talks about music with minority school children. His goal, Barron wrote in New York Times, is "to be a role model for black teenagers, to demystify classical music, and to prove that professional sports are not are only paths to fame." Pratt, meanwhile, sees a day when his race and the superficial differences that set him apart will stop garnering notice--and the attention will focus where it belongs, on his music. "I sort of expect that, in time, all the excess stuff won't be news: the bench, the dreadlocks, the blackness," he told Barron. "Not new news. When I wear t-shirts at a performance, that's what makes me comfortable. A tux, that creates barriers."
Awadagin Pratt's Career
Awadagin Pratt's Awards
Won the prestigious Naumburg International Piano Competition at Lincoln Center in New York City in 1992.
- Selective Works
- A Long Way from Normal, 1994, EMI Classics.
- Beethoven Piano Sonatas, 1996, EMI Classics.
- American Visions, October/November 1994, pp. 48.
- Emerge, February 1995, p. 72.
- Newsweek, Nov. 25, 1996, p. 79C.
- New York Times, February 1995, pp. 244-245.
- People, August 17, 1992.
- Stereo Review, September 1994, pp. 111-112.