Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review: Awadagin Pratt

Oct. 25, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

Awadagin Pratt, who created quite a stir as a young pianist in the early 1990s, is now 42, an established artist with an academic residency (at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music) and nearly 20 years on the concert circuit. The "Long Way from Normal" novelty has worn off. What remains is his musicianship, still impressive, still explorative and unconventional.

In his first visit to Richmond since 1996, Pratt reprised two staples of his solo repertory, Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major, Op. 110, and Harold Bauer’s transcription of C├ęsar Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variations, and played his own arrangement of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor and Liszt’s Sonata in B minor.

Pratt is a power hitter when he chooses to be, and one would expect power aplenty in the Liszt. This performance was more striking, however, in its yearning treatment of the sonata’s recurring lyrical subject and brooding statement of the introduction and coda. The intervening pyrotechnics weren’t beside the point, exactly, but came across as episodes between weightier or more heartfelt matters.

The Beethoven sounded somewhat similarly inverted. This is one of the composer’s shorter and, as usually played, more understated sonatas. Pratt’s reading was assertive and nervy, high-romantic rhapsodic in its songful first movement, hard-edged and as sharply accented as a rustic folk dance in its second movement and fugal finale.

The Bach and Franck brought out the best in this pianist. Pratt audibly relishes the formal logic of theme and variations and the balancing act of right and left hands in a fugue. A substantive or expressive tune compounds his engagement.

His Bach arrangement was weighty and more austere than the typical romantic-era organ-to-piano conversion, and featured a nice jolt of humor in its brief quotation of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

The Franck was a labor of love, with the labor sublimated. Pratt caressed the big lyrical theme until it fairly purred and surrounded it with what sounded like an ecstatic improvisation. I doubt that any pianist at work today could improve on his interpretation of this piece.

Awadagin Pratt joins the Virginia Symphony for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 at 8 p.m. Oct. 31 and Nov. 6 at Christopher Newport University's Ferguson Arts Center in Newport News, 8 p.m. Nov. 1 at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at the Sandler Arts Center in Virginia Beach. Tickets: $23-$83. Details: (757) 892-6366;

Pratt returns to Richmond to join the One Voice community chorus in Beethoven’s "Choral Fantasy" at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Ticket information TBA. Details: (804) 231-0324;