An Extravagant Talent

January 02, 1994|By Stephen Wigler

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."

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