Awadagin Pratt is one of the great and distinctive American pianists and conductors of our time. Currently a professor of piano at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music — on top of his active performing schedule — his resume is long enough for a couple of lifetimes. He was the first triple major at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, getting degrees for violin, piano and conducting. He’s particularly well known for his Bach. (All Things Considered host Arun Rath’s favorite? His takes on Beethoven.)
Rath spoke with Pratt ahead of his performance at the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, Sept. 22 — Pratt’s first appearance with the orchestra, where he will play a piece that was written for him. It’s the first night of the BSO’s new season.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: So before we talk about the concert tonight and this piece of music that was written for you, I want to talk about a multi-media piece involving film and performance that was recently performed. Can you tell us about “Black in America?” What that portrays?
Awadagin Pratt: Wow, okay. Well, that piece I wrote initially as a podcast after the murder of George Floyd. In the media, there were allusions to criminality, or their past arrests or something of George Floyd and the allusions to the drug dealer boyfriend of Breonna Taylor. And every victim was attached to criminalities in some way, as if they had somehow deserved it for being that close to — I don’t know what.
And so it occurred to me that, because that is so pervasive in the media, that people don’t know or don’t think or are not aware that people like me, who have no attachments to criminality, have the kinds of interactions with the police that I have had. And so I wanted to tell that story. So that the audiences of my concerts, the donors, my friends — I don’t really talk about this stuff with my friends. Just people in my orbit would know that the volume and nature of the interactions that I’ve had with the police over my lifetime.
And so on the podcast, it started with music and then I talked for a long time. And I go into aspects of law and the Supreme Court decisions about these various issues. And then there’s the middle: Liszt’s “Funérailles” plays. And then I talk again. And then there was this little, Brandenburg 5 bookends the piece.
A friend of mine asked if it could be performed, and this is probably about the sixth or seventh performance I’ve done. I did a couple the last two weeks. And we had a film commissioned for the middle, so where Liszt’s “Funérailles” plays —
Rath: That’s the piece by Franz Liszt? And it’s funeral music?
Pratt: Yes. It was written for three friends of his who died in an uprising in Hungary, and as a more memorial-type piece.
And so Alrick Brown, who’s at NYU, made a film to accompany the music, which is cool because it usually goes the other way around. But it’s powerful, it’s really powerful. So I perform either this Bach that I’m actually playing here, the A major Concerto, or “Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, First Movement,” depending on where I’m playing it as the first piece. Then I talk, and then the film plays, and I talk, and then ends, now, with the last movement from Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”
But it just goes — I mean, I was jailed overnight when I was a student at Peabody. I was stopped by an officer for running down the street. So that’s sort of the crux of the central action.
Rath: Wow. Yeah, and I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get you off balance by asking about that, but I was reading about this just before. And in the whole introduction, when I was listing off your resume, I didn’t include, “Black man who grew up in America.” And I was just reading about how you got grabbed by the police when you’re running to a music class. It just seems — I don’t know. I mean, it’s not incredible, but it’s just sort of a staggering thing to think about.
Pratt: Yeah. The fact that it is not incredible is staggering.
Rath: And, well, the other piece of music you mentioned was Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” which is a really haunting piece. He wrote it when he was in a Nazi prison camp, right?
Pratt: Yeah, he was in the prison camp. I play the last one, which is for violin and piano. And it’s just a heartbreaking piece of music.
Rath: Is this piece something that will be performed again along with the film? This kind of multimedia production?
Pratt: Yeah, I’ve done it not exclusively — maybe it’s exclusively, so far — on college campuses. I play the music part with student performers, which is good for the school and students. So yeah, it has a life that I didn’t foresee when I initially composed it.
Rath: We definitely need to talk about the music we’ll hear tonight. There’s a Bach piece, but I really want to hear about this piece that was bought by Jessie Montgomery. Was this written for you?
Pratt: Yes, it was written for me. The piece was commissioned by the Art of the Piano Foundation and nine co-commissioning orchestras. It had its premiere with the Hilton Head Symphony at the end of March, April. And we’re having performances with St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Colorado, Indianapolis, Denver — I’m not going to cover them all.
So this will be the 10th performance. And the piece is very quote-unquote “audience friendly.” But beyond that, people are moved by it. So it’s really that’s been gratifying to perform.
Rath: And tell us a bit more about the work and the kind of sound that it has. What’s Jessie Montgomery’s compositional style? It’s called “Rounds”?
Pratt: It’s called “Rounds.” It is for piano and string orchestra. And, you know, Jessie’s a violinist, so as far as the strings are concerned, they like playing it.
It’s also idiomatic for the piano. And there’s an interplay of the material, I would say, much as the same as a lot of Bach, where material gets moved around through the voices — and I see a lot of Bach because it’s not the case in this concerto that I’m playing necessarily. But there’s a similarity there because sometimes I have what’s considered a lot of material, but I mostly have this kind of accompanying figure in certain parts of the piece. It’s kind of hard to describe, but the tune, per se, is this “bee-bum-bee-bum” — this kind of delightful figure. And I have these running notes through that. And there are several different sessions that recur, and then there’s a middle section that’s really hauntingly beautiful.
Rath: That sounds awesome. It’s always exciting to hear new music. Awadagin Pratt, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you. I want to thank you, and also just as a longtime fan, thanks for so much great music over the years.
Pratt: That’s very kind of you. Thank you. Happy to chat with you, and here’s to more.
Rath: Awadagin Pratt is a conductor, pianist, a recording artist and professor of piano at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. He’s performing tonight with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Jessie Montgomery. This is GBH’s All Things Considered.