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This article by Elaine Strauss was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 18, 1998. All rights reserved.

The Literal Long-Haired Musician

Consider these credentials: A son of two university

professors studies piano, violin, and conducting. He is the first

student in the history of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory to receive

diplomas in all three areas of concentration. He wins the Naumburg

International Piano Competition, and tops that honor by being awarded

an Avery Fisher Career Grant. A pianist who looks for repertoire


among Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, he hasn’t gotten around to


music yet, and he has no interest at all in popular music. This is

clearly a long-haired musician. But this man’s long hair is in the

form of dreadlocks.

The unconventional artist is pianist Awagadin Pratt, who gives a


at McCarter Theater Monday, February 23, at 8 p.m. He’ll play his

own version of a Bach Passacaglia and Fugue, Brahms’ "Variations

on a Theme by Handel," and Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an


This is a monumental program for any artist.

Pratt’s concert appearance is unusual in every way. Besides sporting

dreadlocks, he eschews the traditional tuxedo. A tall man, he sits,

spider-like, on a stool 14 inches high that brings his knees close

to his chin and his nose in close proximity to the keyboard. If you’re

not comfortable with unconventional sights, one listener has


"it’s better not to look."

When Pratt won the Naumburg Prize in 1992, he was the first


to do so. When he signed an exclusive recording contract with


a year later, he was one of the first black instrumentalists since

Andre Watts to capture a major label recording contract. Pratt says

he doesn’t think about his achievements in terms of his being black.

"But," he adds, "I’m not ignorant of the


The cover art for Pratt’s second recording for EMI, four Beethoven

sonatas, shows him in what looks like African tribal dress, with a

grand piano, lid up, in the midst of a savanna. The selections consist

of two early Beethoven sonatas, and two of Beethoven’s formidable

final three sonatas. The choice of pieces is bold and imaginative,

demonstrating both the genesis and the culmination of Beethoven’s

unprecedented writing for the piano.

Pratt’s sound on the CD recording has a unique spectrum. Its clarity,

in places, suggests Canadian Glenn Gould as a model. Besides a pearly,

Gould-like touch, Pratt has a gift for telling pauses and delicate

shadings. His playing can be meltingly tender and sensitive. What’s

missing is a cushioned sound and a sense of spaciousness.

I attribute Pratt’s lack of roundness to his sitting so low that his

fingers have to do the bulk of the work. Ordinary mechanical


necessarily apply to playing the piano. For a large and luscious sound

the weight of the player’s arm must join in. Without arm weight, the

piano produces only the pings and tinklings that make detractors


the piano a percussion instrument. The arm can be used to nuance the

system of levers that make a piano function. The approach works.

It would be nice if Pratt would add a large and gentle sound to his

battery of tricks. In any event, it will still be worth heading to

McCarter to hear this very gifted musician play the instrument his


— Elaine Strauss

Awadagin Pratt, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. $22 & $25. Monday, February 23, 8 p.m.

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