Friday, January 7, 2022 From outreaches to piano competitions, CCM professor on mission to elevate Black talent

Awadagin Pratt
(Amy Elizabeth Spassoff)

January 7, 2022

By  –  Courier contributor

Awadagin Pratt’s calendar is packed. The professor of piano at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music balances teaching, performing, conducting and running his own piano festival, Art of the Piano.

Early last month, he soared through an impressive concert with cellist Zuill Bailey at Word of Deliverance Ministries in Forest Park and Memorial Hall for Chamber Music Cincinnati.

This month, he’ll debut as an opera conductor in the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” starring Rhiannon Giddens at Greensboro (N.C.) Opera.

In March, he’ll premiere a new piano concerto by rising composer Jessie Montgomery with Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell and the Hilton Head Symphony. In all, it will be premiered by a consortium of nine orchestras.

Through the Art of the Piano Foundation, Pratt has commissioned seven American composers to write for him with string orchestra and/or the Grammy-winning vocal band Roomful of Teeth. He calls the project “Still Point.”

There’s more: He’s just won a $100,000 grant from the Sphinx Organization to launch a new piano competition featuring African American talent. The Nina Simone Piano Competition will debut in summer 2023. It will be presented every two years by his Art of the Piano Festival and Foundation, in partnership with CCM and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Applications will open in December 2022.

We caught up with Pratt over winter break at CCM.

What’s first on your plate in 2022? I’ve got this interesting stuff – conducting “Porgy and Bess” and then conducting a chamber orchestra in Pittsburgh the week after that. The big thing is this Jessie Montgomery Piano Concerto. I should be getting the score before the end of January and the premiere is two months later.

Do you have any idea what her piano concerto sounds like? Not yet. She’s going to send me some bits. But it’s exciting. Her career has just gone gangbusters.

Not many people know that as a student at the Peabody Institute, you were the first to receive diplomas in three performance areas – piano, violin and conducting. Tell us about your conducting background. I was relatively close to having my career start with conducting as opposed to playing (piano). I was in auditions for a program that found assistant conductors for orchestras about a month before the Naumburg (International Piano Competition in Germany). Then I won the Naumburg. 

I admired your recital for piano and cello with Zuill Bailey recently at Word of Deliverance. Did you have any input into Chamber Music Cincinnati’s plan to perform every concert this season in an African American church? I did. It was (board member) John Spencer’s initiative and he knew all the pastors and had relationships with these churches. I am on the board and supported it. Of the kind of outreach programs that I've been involved with, it is among the most genuine. What Chamber Music Cincinnati is doing has the potential to provide resources and pathways for kids and families that are interested in music to pursue it

What kinds of challenges do you see in reaching underserved communities? When I go to some school that doesn't have a music program that doesn't have any consistent or sustained engagement with music and I play and I talk to them, I’ve exposed them to something. They have something to think about and imagine. But if they're interested, there’s no pathway for follow-up. 

I was in Mobile, Ala., at a school where they had an existing relationship with an (orchestra) strings program, but they didn’t have a piano. A piano had to be brought in. I asked the school’s principal, the (people from) the orchestra and the piano store, “What can be done so that this piano doesn’t leave here?” By the end of the week, they’d worked something out so that piano stayed in that school.

The Detroit-based Sphinx Organization supports and promotes Black and Latino talent in classical music. What was your reaction when you received a $100,000 grant from the Sphinx Venture Fund? We submitted the application and then I got a call about a week later saying, “We’ve got some follow-up questions.” They want things to be sustainable, and they didn’t know the history of the Art of the Piano and what we've been doing for 10 years in terms of fundraising and the product that we provide. So we filled in some of the blanks, and they called back and did a good job of making it seem like we weren’t going to get it – until they said, “After careful consideration, you got it. I’m exceptionally pleased that they trusted us to do this."

Is this piano competition for young African American pianists the first of its kind? No, there is an organization called the National Association of Negro Musicians, which has sponsored competitions for a long time. I won that back when I was a student at the University of Illinois.           

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