Amid the bustling festivities of Homecoming and Family Weekend at last Saturday, renowned American pianist Awadagin Pratt (pronounced AwaDAHzhin) performed a solo recital of known and rare works before a large, enthusiastic audience at Thorne Hall.
The October 29 recital marked the culmination of a four-day residency at Occidental funded by the G. William Hume Endowment. “Every two years we are able to invite a particularly exciting artist or group, thanks to the G. William Hume Endowment,” explained Music Department Chair Irene Girton.
During his stay at Occidental, Pratt lectured on music history and taught a master class for pianists who were a mix of music and non-music majors. “The level of playing was generally quite high,” remarked Pratt in a post-recital conversation with Patch.
Students and faculty alike, along with an interested Los Angeles public eager to hear Pratt in an all-too rare appearance in Southern California, nearly filled the 792-seat Thorne Hall. A complimentary reception of warm beverages and pastries was served during intermission and again at the recital’s close.
A Musical Workout—From the Get-Go
Sporting his trademark colorful shirt, dreadlocks tied back neatly, and thick beard, Pratt strode to the piano and began an exceedingly demanding program. He sweated profusely during the first piece—and well into the performance's end. The extensive bill of fare, centered on Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B minor, began with a virtually unknown work by Robert Schumann, “Études in the Form of Free Variations on a Theme of Beethoven,” a set of study-like variations based on the slow movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony.
Unlike most variation sets, a clear statement of the theme was postponed until the end of the piece—to controversial reception by concertgoers. “I eventually recognized the theme, but not until the piece was practically over,” noted audience-member Stephen Brown during intermission.
While Schumann’s experimental delaying of the theme failed to resonate with all in attendance, Pratt’s deft management of the work’s rich contrapuntal strands—reminiscent more of Bach than Beethoven—fostered a contemplative atmosphere in Thorne Hall.
Following the Schumann kickoff, Pratt presented a work dedicated to Schumann—the normally 35-minute Sonata by Franz Liszt, composed just a little more than 150 years ago and widely regarded as among the greatest achievements of piano writing by any composer. Scathingly attacked by critics following the work’s premiere (like so much new music), it eventually became a firm fixture of the piano canon and is now frequently heard in recitals by ambitious pianists.
Its formidable length has deterred many challengers from convincing audiences of the work’s potential, but Pratt employed unusually rapid tempi in fast sections and a lithe rubato in the slower sections, enabling the work to cohere successfully.
Audience participants sat uniformly rapt throughout the lengthy—albeit shorter than typical—duration of the piece. Liszt’s dramatic moments were dispatched to full effect at the hands of Pratt, whose seasoned technique was amply equal to the requirements of Liszt’s pyrotechnics.
Between composer and pianist, Thorne Hall’s Steinway D was tested to the limits of its capacity for speed of execution and sheer volume—and it might have benefited from a spot tuning during intermission. Yet, for all of Pratt’s technical prowess, it was his subtleties of musicality that captured the most attention. Sudden, unforeshadowed pauses at harmonically tense moments left audience members holding their breath, as indicated by the spontaneous chorus of sighs accompanying the ensuing resolution points. A wise restraint in many of Liszt’s fortes promoted Pratt’s clear, long-range plan, while shifts of tempo were intelligently based on Liszt’s harmonic framework.
Reviving The Lost Art of Improvisation in Classical Music
After a brief intermission, Pratt opened the recital’s second half with informative comments on the tradition of performing in the 19th century, and how he would attempt to recreate it through the lost art of improvisation.
In the world of jazz, performing and improvising are indistinguishable. Contrastingly, classical musicians do not generally improvise before a live audience, preparing even the finest minutiae of execution far in advance of the performance.
As Pratt explained, that was not always the case. Clara Schumann, wife of composer Robert, was renowned for her improvisatory prowess. She would frequently create new musical material between pieces, often based loosely on the works themselves. Pratt followed in her example, linking each work on the second half with a short improvisation based on themes from the preceding and succeeding works.
Apart from a single brief pause, there was no break between pieces and no occasion for applause, which had the effect of heightening the meditative mood induced by the numerous evocative character-pieces comprising the program’s second half. All miniature works, they spanned the gamut of time, style and national origin.
In a rare performance for piano, Pratt opened the second half with “Mysterious Barricades,” by French Baroque composer François Couperin, court composer to Louis XIV. Almost always played on the harpsichord, the richly sonorous work sounded remarkably idiomatic to the piano in Pratt’s rendition.
Other highlights of the second half included the texturally lush “Rustle of Spring,” by Late-Romantic Norwegian composer Christian Sinding, and “Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone,” by American composer of both jazz and classical backgrounds, Fred Hersch (born 1955). Hersch’s jazz-inspired nocturne was composed for his piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff, because of her “fondness,” Hersch has written, “for the music of Scriabin,” composer of a famous nocturne for the left hand alone.
The program ended with Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s song "Widmung," which "ties everything together, as we began with Schumann and Liszt,” explained Pratt from the stage. At the audience’s persistent standing ovation, Pratt offered one encore—another short piece by Fred Hersch, this time for both hands, the exceptionally lyrical “Valentine.”
At the understated, slightly melancholy ending of that piece, the audience seemed ready to hear about Pratt’s future engagements in Los Angeles—as well as news of the next great artist to perform at Thorne Hall.
Steven Niles is a pianist and teacher on the music faculties of Los Angeles Mission College in Sylmar and Rio Hondo College in Whittier.