Awadagin Pratt's quiet storm

May 05, 1994|By Nori Keston

AWADAGIN PRATT, the young Peabody-trained musician who two years ago became the first African American pianist to win the prestigious Naumberg Competition, last month celebrated the release of his debut album on the EMI label.

The album documents some of the works Awadagin has played in a whirl wind concert schedule since winning the Naumberg, including the Busoni transcription of Bach's Chaconne in D Minor, and Liszt's "Funerailles," two massively Romantic pieces that highlight the pianist's unique interpretive gifts.

Listening to the album recently, I recalled my own impressions of Awadagin as a fellow student at Peabody. I remember when he first arrived at the school. People began talking about him almost immediately, both as an artist and as a personality.

My first impressions of Awadagin were influenced by an offhand comment overheard among a group of students while I was waiting for the school elevator one day. One of them said, "They say he's really something."

Now, I have a problem whenever I hear someone say that someone or something is really "great," whether it's a pianist or a movie. "Right!" I think. Then I reserve judgment, or get bored, depending on my mood.

It was only later that I actually had an opportunity to hear Awadagin play. He performed the Tchaikovsky B-flat Minor Piano Concerto during a master class at school one evening (with a second piano substituting for the orchestra). I thought he played well; he was different, but "great" was not an adjective I would have used.

Then I heard Awadagin a second time, in a competition at a local church. There were six players that afternoon and he was scheduled to perform toward the end of the program. I was tired, and still a little bored by what I thought was all the hype surrounding this young artist. But I wanted to hear him again.

I don't remember what piece he started with, but I do remember the moment he began to play the Beethoven Piano Sonata Op. 110, a piece most pianists have heard so many times it holds few surprises for us even in the hands of the instrument's supreme interpreters.

Yet when Awadagin started to play, I started to cry. The tears were completely unexpected and unbidden. I was sitting alone, far from anyone else. After Awadagin played the Beethoven, he played Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, another piece suffused with emotional longing and pathos. And so for 45 minutes I sat there in the church, weeping.

It was then that I realized that here was an extraordinary talent. Since winning the Naumberg, Awadagin seems to be everywhere; his career has really taken off. Yet he remains the same Awadagin I knew at Peabody: personally very sweet, intelligent and quite charismatic.

From the critics he has drawn mixed reviews. Some have dismissed his success as a fluke. They say Awadagin is merely a tall, good-looking young black man in dreadlocks, and that it is his image more than his playing that separates him from other talented pianists.

Others have criticized his technique. In concert he can become so wrapped up in the feeling of a piece that he drops wrong notes by the fistful -- anathema to the current critical obsession with technical virtuosity and immaculately polished performances.

Awadagin seems unconcerned by such criticism, however. He is more focused on other things.

For example, I had a friend once on the piano faculty at a large Midwestern university. One of my clearest memories is of Kerry sitting on the sofa during the period when he was dying of AIDS. He was too ill to sit up, and he had difficulty talking. But he had whittled life down to its essence. He knew the only things that really mattered to him were music and the love and affection of his friends.

We were talking about music one day, about what we wanted when we went to a concert and why we even went to concerts in the first place. I sat there, talking about what I was calling our need to "see the world inside-out," to expand our sense of ourselves.

Kerry said, "When I go to a concert, I want to be moved."

I was astonished. Then I thought: "Yes. That's it exactly." And then I wondered why it took a dying friend's words to finally bring home to me something so simple. Maybe, in the same way that he knew that what he needed in his dying days was the affection of his friends, he knew that what he needed from music was to be moved.

My own feeling is that Awadagin is taking the country by storm not because of his image but because at least sometimes when he sits down at the piano he plays more affectingly than almost anyone else.

Perhaps he doesn't do it all the time -- what artist does? -- and on those occasions when he doesn't the critics have a right to be skeptical. But anyone who has heard him play well has heard music making that is free, poetic and highly individualistic. With all the brilliance and technical polish some players possess they often don't succeed in doing what matters most: move their listeners on some deep emotional level.

But if you hear Awadagin enough, you'll eventually hear him at his best; and when he is at his best, he will surely move you as he has moved so many others with the sheer beauty of his playing.

Nori Keston is a graduate student in piano at the Peabody Conservatory.

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