Peabody pianist wins prestigious competition Pratt is first black Naumburg recipient

May 13, 1992|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau Music Critic Stephen Wigler contributed to this article.

NEW YORK — An May 13 article about Awadagin Pratt, the Peabody pianist who won the prestigious Naumburg Competition, incorrectly stated that Mr. Pratt was the first black recipient of the award. In fact, several black singers have won; Mr. Pratt was the first black instrumentalist to win.

The Sun regrets the error.

NEW YORK -- In performances of Bach, Liszt and Beethoven tinged by a few minor errors and illuminated by individualistic brilliance, Awadagin Pratt, a student at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, yesterday became the first African-American to win the prestigious Naumburg Competition for young musicians.

"He made you feel like you were in the presence of the composer; it is a rare gift," said Robert Mann, president of the Naumburg Foundation, first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet and a former winner him- self. "Very few young artists create a sense that the music is theirs. He has the potential to be a great artist and I have said this very seldom in the past."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The decision was by a clear majority of the half-dozen jurors but not unanimous. Several jurors said they were influenced by a particularly powerful performance in the semifinals on Monday.

The Naumburg award carries a $5,000 prize and, more importantlyto a young artist, includes two major residencies with national arts organizations, 40 concerto and recital appearances, and the first glimmer of fame.

Mr. Pratt is only the most recent of several pianists in the past few years who have studied with Peabody's Leon Fleisher and who have gone on to win top prizes in important international competitions. Mr. Fleisher said last night: "It's lovely news. Awadagin is a very serious young man with a great potential for a highly successful career in music."

Among the oldest and most famous of international awards, the Naumburg is eagerly sought. A strict initial screening of tapes resulted in 55 pianists being brought to New York from as far away as the Philippines and the former Soviet Union. They, in turn, were reduced to a half-dozen finalists in three intense days of performances before judges.

Awaiting the decision, Mr. Pratt said, "You prepare to lose. Winning is rare and surprising."

As the award was announced, the finalists stood in the evening chill on the broad plaza of Lincoln Center, in front of Avery Fisher Hall, surrounded by onlookers. Mr. Pratt's expression broke from intense concentration to joy. He was engulfed by well-wishers, including a homeless woman who shook his hand and told him to thank God.

"People tell you you did well . . . but there is no way to know, ever," said a relieved Mr. Pratt, who noted that he made a few errors. "Now I have to live up to the expectations."

The Naumburg -- which awards prizes in varying categories in different years -- rates second in prestige only to the Van Cliburn Competition. Unlike the other contestants in yesterday's final, who were attired in tuxedos or dark suits, Mr. Pratt wore a black shirt, black pants, and a gold and black tie. His dreadlocked hair was knotted in a ponytail.

"There is a lot of tradition built into concerts and concert-going that could benefit from being changed," Mr. Pratt said. "There is too much formality."

His talent proclaimed itself early to his Sierra Leone-born father (a professor of physics at Illinois State University in Normal) and to his mother (a professor of social work at the same institution). At 6 he began piano lessons, at 9 he started the violin, and at 16 he entered the University of Illinois as a music major.

He arrived at Peabody in 1986 at the age of 20, where he became the first triple major in the conservatory's history and the first student to go on to win performer's certificates in piano, violin and conducting.

"It's been a long gestation period with this young man," Peabody Director Robert Pierce said. "He's studied a lot of things, but he's got a brilliant mind. I was saying just this morning that when he puts it all together, he'll win big and go places. We're seeing the beginning of that."

Concerning his achievement as the first black musician to win the award, Mr. Pratt said, "If there are other young black people studying classical music, they could see these things are possible."

To win his first major international competition, Mr. Pratt played the Chaconne from Bach's D Minor Partita as transcribed by Busoni, Liszt's Funerailles and the First Movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4.

Mr. Pratt began his day by reading a book on chess, a strategy he repeated because it had worked well during the earlier rounds in focusing his energies. The first moments on the stage at Avery Fisher Hall went well, but in the middle of the performance, he said, he began to consider his place in the vast, famous concert hall. "Those are the kind of things that make you lose concentration," he said. "Once you get comfortable, your mind begins to wander -- it didn't go too far afield."

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