San Diego Symphony will feature pianist Awadagin Pratt for new Jessie Montgomery composition

Pianist Awadagin Pratt at the keyboard.
Pianist Awadagin Pratt will perform with the San Diego Symphony April 14-16 in La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe.
(Courtesy of Awadagin Pratt)

Since winning prestigious competitions in the early 1990s, pianist Awadagin Pratt has played and recorded works by Bach and Beethoven and other legendary composers, as many acclaimed classical-music pianist have. But this versatile pianist/conductor/educator is also committed to performing new music.

His upcoming album, “Still Point,” will feature commissioned works by seven living composers. Pratt will join the San Diego Symphony here for concerts Thursday through Saturday to perform the Jessie Montgomery-composed Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra, which is on the album.

Montgomery is a New York-born, Chicago-based violinist who was named Musical America’s 2023 Composer of the Year. She was inspired to write Rounds by a passage from “Burnt Norton,” a 1936 poem by T.S. Eliot:

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. And do not call it fixity.

“The poem was a central part of this album,” said Pratt, 57. “The composers had to take inspiration from that. I love those lines. Music is song and dance, you know? You have the dance and the still, I was inviting composers to explore stasis as well.”

Pratt’s “Still Point” album includes music by four African-American composers, two women and two White men. Their median age is around 45, although Latvia’s Peteris Vasks is 76. The album is set for release in August.

“The new composers, young composers’ works have not had time to accrue that kind of value,” Pratt explained. “It’s incumbent upon performers to play the works and be advocates for the composers whose works 100 years from now will be regarded as masterpieces. Because they are.”

The mid-April concerts at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall in La Jolla and the Village Church in Rancho Santa Fe will be conducted by Yaniv Dinur. He leads the Milwaukee and New Bedford (Mass.) symphony orchestras.

Dinur, like Pratt, is both a conductor and pianist.

Besides Montgomery’s Rounds, the program will include Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No. 1 for Strings and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, often called “The Classical Symphony.”

The Prokofiev piece is noted for being charming, impish and effervescent. Its finale was described by the composer himself as “lively and blithe.”

Pianist Awadagin Pratt at the piano.
Pianist Awadagin Pratt will perform a Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra with the San Diego Symphony on April 13-15,
(Courtesy of San Diego Symphony)

Pratt was born in Pittsburgh to parents who were college professors. He began studying piano at 3. His first name (pronounced AwaDODGin) is from Sierra Leone, his father’s native country. The family moved to Normal, Ill., which explains the title of Pratt’s first album, 1994’s “A Long Way From Normal.”

At 16, the prodigious Pratt started at the University of Illinois where he studied piano, violin, and conducting. He was the first student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music to receive diplomas in all three performance fields.

The present-day Pratt has a busy touring schedule as both pianist and conductor. A professor of piano at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, he also serves as the artistic director of its Art of the Piano Festival. The festival commissioned or co-commissioned the works on his “Still Point.”

Beginning in the fall, Pratt will commute weekly to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In May, he will be awarded an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“I’m used to having multiple priorities,” he said. “When I have a slew of concerts coming up, that’s what I’m focused on. If I have a little bit more time, I focus on my family and my students.

“When I was a student, I had all these balls in the air all of the time, so I’m used to juggling.”

Last year, Pratt conducted New York’s adventurous Bang on a Can Orchestra. He sometimes combines piano recitals with conducting, which he has done with the Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh and Miami Valley Symphony Orchestra. In June, he will conduct and perform in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Composer Jessie Montgomery.
Composer Jessie Montgomery. Her Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra will be performed at San Diego Symphony concerts April 13-15.
(Courtesy of Jiyang Chen)

Pratt has been praised for his input on Rounds by Montgomery, who recently stopped playing with her long-time string quartet to devote her time to composing. She and Pratt discussed the poems of Eliot as a starting point for the piece, which is her first major work for piano.

“Once Jessie had written it, there were just a few places where we discussed the register and what kind of sound she wanted on the piano,” Pratt said.

“That was a good collaboration. Then on the cadenza, she has allowed the cadenza to be my own creation.”

Cadenzas — composer-designated sections of improvised music performed by a soloist — were common in classical and romantic concertos. But the tradition waned and was completely lost, Pratt noted, with the advent of recording.

“Improvisation goes back to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn,” he said. “People now associate it with jazz. But I’m approaching it from the language of Jessie’s composition.

“When performing the cadenza, I also improvise 10 to 30 percent. Because it’s the centerpiece of the work, it was a big moment of trust on Jessie’s part and you’ll hear my own musical energy.”

San Diego Symphony: Dinur, Montgomery and the “Classical” Symphony, featuring Awadagin Pratt

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall, The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave, La Jolla

Tickets: $50-$105

When: April 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Village Church, 6225 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe

Tickets: $65-$85

Phone: (619) 235-0804