Acclaimed pianist Awadagin Pratt bringing new music to Wichita Symphony concert
Acclaimed pianist Awadagin Pratt knows his way around a classic.
For more than 30 years, he’s performed the works of the masters throughout the globe.
But his return to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra next weekend — and his first trip back since the mid-‘90s — will be in the name of new music.
He’s featured on “Rounds for Piano and Orchestra” by Jessie Montgomery, a violinist-turned-rising composer who has received the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation and composer of the year by Musical America Worldwide.
It’s part of a seven-composer album of works featuring Pratt at the keyboard that was commissioned by nine symphony orchestras nationwide and Pratt’s own Art of the Piano Foundation.
In an interview from his Cincinnati office, Pratt said he was ecstatic about introducing new music to symphonies and their audiences.
“It gives more fresh blood in the options pianists have to perform,” he said.
The name of the album, due out in August, is “Still Point,” based on T.S. Eliot’s poem, including the verse:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
Pratt said he first got to know Montgomery as she was beginning to move away from performing to composing. He and her Catalyst Quartet had a date in Sitka, Alaska, “where there’s really nothing to do,” and talked in depth about music and composing.
“I thought she was really dynamic and thoughtful and powerful composer and musician and I said that if I ever had the chance for her to write for me, I would,” he recalled.
They met initially online to discuss the project and talked over a few ideas, mostly the idea of “Still Point” rather than anything specifically about the music.
All of the piece was completed, Pratt said, except for a cadenza where he filled in the missing pieces.
“She hadn’t written one yet, and I already had a practice of improvisation,” he said. “She told me it was coming, but we were getting closer to the date and I was playing around with ideas.”
Pratt completed the piece with piano improvisation.
“Depending on the night, 10-15% of it is improvised,” he said.
Pratt said he approaches newer work the same as he does the classics.
“The learning process is what it is for any piece, trying to get inside the piece and see how it’s put together,” he said. “Then working with each orchestra every conductor is bringing something new to it, every orchestra has a different sound, every hall has a different sound.”
Pratt said he enjoyed the variety of the piece.
“There are moments of really, really, really beautiful music that’s affecting and simple in a way,” he said. “They’re incredibly beautiful. They recur, and that’s kind of cool also.”
The piece, which premiered last year, has received acclaim.
“Montgomery keeps the listener’s ear alert and engaged, with subsequent sections built around a sequence of striking, deeply gnarled chords, or quietly drawn gossamer textures from the strings,” according to a Boston Globe reviewer. “Her music has a narrative flair and structural clarity that allowed the audience, so it seemed, to follow her every step of the way. Pratt’s imaginative, boldly profiled playing was the icing on the cake.”
The guest conductor for next weekend’s concert is Rei Hotoda, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic and considered one of the premier female conductors in the country.
The concert also featured “All Things Majestic,” written by Jennifer Higdon; and Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”
Pratt began the Art of the Piano Foundation seven years ago, beginning with summer festivals in Cincinnati (where he teaches at the music conservatory) and two to three weeks of master classes and recitals, highlighted by the students playing the new music for the composers.
“This was part of a process of shifting over to new music and putting new words for piano and string orchestra into the repertoire,” said Pratt, who will move to teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music this fall, commuting weekly from Ohio.
Pratt said the early 2000s have been a boon to new composers thanks to more avenues to gain exposure to their music.
“The music is the life force of an orchestra,” he said. “In the current time especially there’s been an expansion (where) people are able to produce more things on their own, in an outlet that’s not generated by the music industry.”
Part of Pratt’s current endeavors have not been music-related. He was featured in a PBS special, “Awadagin Pratt: Black in America,” talking about the challenges he faces as a Black man, despite his stature in classical music.
It was brought on by the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and how Pratt constantly faced scrutiny from law enforcement.
“I realized I had all these police stops in my life,” he said. “Colleagues and concertgoers didn’t realize this had happen to me. These kinds of stops happen to normal Black people.”
Wichita Symphony Orchestra
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, March 26
Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $10-$80, from wichitasymphony.org, 316-267-7658 or the WSO ticket office on the second floor of Century II