Debut of an extravagant talent

January 20, 1994

A year ago Awadagin Pratt, the young Peabody-trained pianist who in 1992 became the first African-American instrumentalist to win the prestigious Naumburg Award, had to ferret out friends and fellow students from the school's practice rooms to make up an audience for his recitals. Last week, when Mr. Pratt made his debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Meyerhoff Hall, the house was sold out for both performances. Such is the progress from struggling unknown to superstar -- a transformation Mr. Pratt has achieved virtually overnight.

Mr. Pratt's meteoric rise (so quick he hasn't even had time to become a household name) is due to several circumstances. He is a brilliantly original musician who stamps everything he plays with his own personal style. He is also extremely personable, good-looking and given to the unconventional attire adopted by many younger artists in protest against the stuffy concert protocol of tuxedo and tails. Mr. Pratt, who wears his hair in long, dreadlocks-type braids, is likely to arrive on stage in jeans and a pullover. His outfits seem to proclaim that music, not costume, makes the artist.

Though Mr. Pratt is not the only African-American instrumentalist to have won recognition for performing classical music -- pianists Andre Watts and Keith Jarrett and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis are also acknowledged masters of this repertoire -- he has been the subject of intense media attention. As The Baltimore Sun's music critic, Stephen Wigler, noted in a recent profile, in the 18 months since his Naumburg victory, Mr. 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.

"To orchestras trying to reach out to younger and more diverse audiences, Mr. Pratt arrived like an answer to a prayer," Mr. Wigler wrote. "His concerts attract an unusually large number of young people, many of them African-Americans."

That drawing power was certainly in evidence last week at Mr. Pratt's BSO debut, which surely will be remembered as one of the highlights of the season. Since Mr. Pratt is also a gifted conductor, let us hope that future BSO concerts will give audiences a chance to enjoy his music-making as wielder of the baton as well. In the meantime, we extend our congratulations to this talented young artist, from whom we expect great things as his career continues to unfold.

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