Pianist Awadagin Pratt Performs New Concerto by Jessie Montgomery

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2021.22 Season, Classics, Guest Artist

A few months ago, at the second-ever performance of Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds for piano and string orchestra, pianist Awadagin Pratt came to a passage marked forte. “I was playing it pretty loud, but leaving room for fortissimo,” he recalled. “And when Jessie saw me after the performance, she said, ‘What happened at that spot?’ And I told her I was leaving some space to go up, and she said, ‘It should be head-banging there.’ And I said, ‘Then you should have put “Head-banging” in the score.’”

Pratt laughs as he tells the story, but it’s an example of how composer and performer collaborate to bring a new work into the world. He will perform Rounds with the Milwaukee Symphony June 10 and 11, part of a series of concerts with the nine orchestras that co-commissioned the piece.

The two have known each other for years, since Pratt performed with Montgomery, who is also a violinist, and her quartet, and they met to talk about her ideas before she began composing. “She thinks of it as a chamber piece, and that stems from us having played together,” he said. “It might have turned out differently if she had written it for a different pianist.”

After he got the finished score, they had another meeting to talk about the cadenza. When Pratt performs Mozart or Beethoven concertos, he usually writes his own cadenza, or perhaps even improvises during the concert.

Improvised cadenzas are a connection both to the tradition of classical performance (Bach and Beethoven were famous for it in their lifetimes) and to modern jazz and pop. It is rarer in contemporary classical performance – but Pratt said that although most of his are worked out in advance, “how I go from this idea to that idea might be improvised.” In the case of Rounds, “I showed Jessie some stuff that I had worked out, and she said, ‘Go for it.’ She gave an overall shape to it, but it’s mostly mine.”

At some point, of course, the piece takes on a life of its own, and each conductor and soloist will do something to put their stamp on it. Even after a few months of touring Rounds, Pratt says, “Each performance, the conductor brings something different, and I’m in a different place because I’ve played it more times.” If there are minor tempo changes from one night to the next, “so be it. These things are alive and fluid.”

To get the tempo, Pratt said, “I’m either looking at the stick [conductor’s baton], or at the concertmaster’s bow. Some orchestras play later than the stick.”

Wait a minute. That happens?

“Yes, sometimes, especially with European orchestras. You hear and see if that’s the case or not, and you adjust. And it can change. It’s not always the same throughout the whole piece.”

Pratt and Montgomery are both Black, and the turbulent summer of 2020 forced the classical music industry to take a hard look at its own spotty history of inclusion. “Things have changed,” Pratt said. “It will be interesting to see if it’s sustained and what shapes it takes.” Black composers, both living and dead, are getting extra attention at the moment, and “it’s expanding people’s ears. A lot of music has been neglected.” Not everything by a Black composer – or any composer – is a masterpiece, of course, but he pointed out that plenty of mediocre music by white composers currently gets performed regularly.

Rounds is among the first of seven recent commissions by Pratt’s Art of the Piano Foundation from composers of diverse backgrounds. Do they all fit into the stream of classical tradition? “Well, they’re all tonal,” Pratt answered thoughtfully, “and you wouldn’t necessarily have expected that 30 years ago. But we haven’t been coming from one long line for a while. The line exploded in the 20th century. There are certain elements that are active in different pieces and that are unique to each composer’s voice.”

Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds is a co-commission by the Art of Piano Foundation, the MSO, and a coalition of North American orchestras. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.