For pianist Pratt, the student has now become the master

May 03, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra visited Japan last fall, Eric Conway, the orchestra's keyboard player, was sometimes surrounded by music-loving teen-agers who clamored for autographs as they chanted: "Pratt! Pratt! Pratt! . . ."

"That's outrageous," says Awadagin Pratt, who has never visited Japan, but who is already famous there (as he is most places where people listen to classical music) and who, like Conway, is young, from Baltimore and black.

To those qualities, add Pratt's unusual concert attire (jeans and silk T-shirts instead of tuxedos), his hair (dreadlocks), drop-dead beautiful face and striking physique; then season with his victory in an important international competition (the Naumburg Award) and his best-selling record on a major label. You've got an almost sure-fire recipe for success and fame.

It is thus as something of a hero that Pratt returns tonight to the Peabody Conservatory, where he spent seven years in relative obscurity. He will perform the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in a concert to benefit scholarships for minority students.

"If it happens when I'm not rushing to go off somewhere, it's kind of cool," says Pratt, 29, of being famous enough to be recognized on the street and asked for an autograph.

But from the moment Pratt became the first African-American instrumentalist to win the Naumburg Award in 1991, it was clear that his musical ambitions encompassed much more than merely being a famous pianist. And it seemed that his ultimate destination might be the conductor's podium, rather than a pianist's bench -- even one so idiosyncratic as the 18-inch-high lamp stand Pratt is celebrated for using.

His 75 concerts a year -- a schedule with dates as prestigious as appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony -- include conducting opportunities.

"Not as many as I'd like, but not so few that it makes me unhappy," says Pratt, who has this season conducted such works as Brahms' Symphony No. 1, and conducted from the keyboard in the Beethoven C Major and Bach D Minor concertos.

Even when he plays the piano, Pratt is willing to take risks that identify him as something out of the run of ordinary international prize winners.

There's his approach to Beethoven's Sonata No. 7 in D Major, for example, with its famous slow movement, which the composer marked "largo e mesto" ("slow and sad"). In his new record of four Beethoven sonatas -- scheduled for July release on the EMI label -- Pratt will perform the D Major's slow movement at unconventionally fast tempos.

"At the slow speeds fashionable today, the largo would have had sound on the pianos of Beethoven's time because the decay [of sound] was so much more rapid," Pratt says.

Pratt worked out some of his ideas on adapting the huge 20th-century concert grand to the sound dimensions of Beethoven's instruments with Roger Norrington, the well-known conductor and early music guru. It was with Norrington and the Orchestra of St. Luke's that Pratt gave two now famous or -- depending on one's point of view -- infamous performances of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto earlier this year in New York City.

"That was really great, it was really rocking," Pratt says of the performances in which the piano was turned around so that the pianist's back faced the back of the orchestra while his face looked out over the keyboard at the audience.

"They [the winds] could watch everything and hear everything I was doing," the pianist says. "I couldn't see them, but I could hear everything they were doing much better than if I had been conventionally positioned.

"People who sought out seats on the keyboard side were disappointed," he adds. "But anyone interested enough in the music to hear how the usual problems with ensemble in the Fourth Concerto could be solved were mighty pleased."

AWADAGIN PRATT

When: 8:15 tonight

Where: Friedberg Hall, Peabody Conservatory

Tickets: $14-$25

Call: (410) 659-8124

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