Pratt Pauses Briefly to Give Local Concert By Mike Giuliano Awadagin Pratt is a pianist on the move. The 1992 Peabody Institute graduate, and winner that same year of the Naumburg International Piano Competition, receives so many requests for concerts and interviews that the blurry rush of music world attention would be enough to give any musician pause. Although he moved from a Charles Village apartment to Albuquerque, New Mexico, more than a year ago in order to gain some quiet desert space, he's close enough to an airport to easily get to concert destinations around the globe. And while his management mentions how he's cutting back on his hectic concertizing, attempts to reach him in recent weeks translated to tracking his movements from Europe to New Mexico and on to some master classes and performances in Kansas. It seems as if the 29-year-old pianist is in demand everywhere. One place you can be sure to find him this week is on his old training ground, the Peabody, where he is featured soloist for the Arthur Friedheim Memorial Concert Wednesday at 8:15 p.m. in the Friedberg Concert Hall. He'll be playing Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, accompanied by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra under music director Hajime Teri Murai. On its own, the orchestra will perform Prokofiev's Symphony No.5. Just as the Peabody was instrumental in nurturing his career, Pratt has been generous in returning to the area for several recitals in recent years. Audiences here have heard him in venues including the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Shriver Hall, Howard Community College's Smith Theater, Kennedy Center and University of Maryland College Park. And in November he'll be back for a recital at Loyola College. Like other young pianists whose careers suddenly zoom, Pratt said yes to seemingly everything and only recently began cutting back somewhat on his schedule. "This is quite a lot of concerts, but if someone asks you if you want to play in the Virgin Islands, it's hard to say no," he told this reporter during an interview last year. "A lot of these are concerts that came about because of the Naumburg. I simply feel I need to play in cities where I've never played before--as long as I'm not collapsing." Why have so many cities been calling him? He's a distinctive pianist, to be sure, but he stood out in other ways in the still fairly traditional classical music business. Although the emergence of the African American pianist Andre Watts 30 years ago should have made Pratt's racial heritage a non-issue, much of the media attention focused more on his skin color than on his keyboard abilities. But whatever his skin color, Awadagin Pratt cuts an unusual figure on stage. There are the long dreadlocks that make him look more like a rap star than a classical pianist. There are the casual clothes that substitute a T-shirt for a tux. And then there is the sight of Awadagin Pratt lowering himself onto a custom-made bench that puts his lanky frame only 13 inches from the floor. The practical explanation for this strange bench is that it once served as a lamp table in his Baltimore apartment. The more inspirational explanation is that he was consciously emulating his hero, the late Glenn Gould. Long before he acquired such a stage prop, he already was acquiring the skills that would make so many people want to pay for their seats in order to watch him sit down on that bench. Born in Pittsburgh, he began studying piano at 6 and several years later took up the violin, too. He grew up in Normal, Ill., where his now-retired parents were affiliated with the state university; his father was a physics professor and his mother a professor of social work. Incidentally, the name "Awadagin" comes from his father's native Sierra Leone. At 16, he entered the University of Illinois to study piano, violin and conducting. Then in 1986 he enrolled at Peabody, where he was the first student in the Conservatory's history to receive diplomas in three areas: piano, violin and conducting. The career that immediately soared after winning the Naumburg in 1992 and an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1994 resulted in a media onslaught including writeups in the New York Times and People magazine. He was named one of the "50 Leaders of Tomorrow" by Ebony magazine. He has often been heard on National Public Radio and the commercial TV networks. And he has performed at the White House for President and Mrs. Clinton. This summer he makes his debut at the Ravinia and Blossom music festivals, and also makes his German recital debut. The season ahead also includes a concert in Capetown, South Africa. Things remain busy on the recording front, too, with his 1994 debut CD A Long Way from Normal to be followed by a CD of all-Beethoven sonatas this July, and a CD of piano transcriptions next year. As if the playing and recording weren't enough, Pratt has said that eventually he would like to devote much of his time to conducting. "I think I can have a dual career. I'd like to strike a balance between playing the piano and conducting. It's possible the conducting could eventually supersede the piano."
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