Pianist Awadagin Pratt wows Utah Symphony audience with Utah premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds, Bach keyboard concerto

While the Utah Symphony billed its December opener highlighting Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the two performances of pianist Awadagin Pratt on the Utah premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds and a Bach keyboard concerto, respectively, constituted the evening’s most thrilling moments.

The three standing ovations that Pratt received immediately after Rounds, a Grammy-nominated piece for piano and strings, reinforced the consistently enthusiastic affirmative response the 2022 work has received in more than 30 performances by Pratt. As noted in The Utah Review’s preview of the concert, Pratt commissioned Montgomery, along with five other composers, to each write a work based on selected prompts from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets. Rounds was one of six compositions recorded for the Stillpoint album, which was released by New Amsterdam Records.

Awadagin Pratt.

With guest conductor Teddy Abrams, the Louisville Orchestra’s music director, at the helm, Pratt and the accompanying strings demonstrated perfectly the comprehensive affinity for musical expression and structure found in Eliot’s poetic verses. Montgomery was prompted by several verses in the second part of Burnt Norton, which in plainest terms frames time as a cycle. Montgomery is a master of compositional structure, showing that patterns emerge especially because they require disruption to do so, even as we crave a constant point at which every option, pathway and possibility converge. She also draws upon the concepts of fractals, for weaving a sound tapestry with nested rondo sequences that instinctively lead to multiscale patterns.

Pratt led the way with exceptional lucid playing that rewarded and enriched the listener’s experience, where one could pinpoint the contrasts and differentiations in rhythmic and tonal expressions within these cycles of musical phrases. He arrived at the cadenza, which he has varied and improvised with each performance by about 10%-20%, as he explained in an earlier interview (note: compare the live performance experience to the recording on the Stillpoint album). Pratt conveyed a truly approachable sense of graceful exploration, acknowledging that in each iterative performance, he instinctively has found a fresh ideal location for a musical pattern or even individual notes and short phrases. Montgomery gave Pratt enough freedom to subvert just enough the structural symmetries she has created for the work. Rounds will never sound predictable, prescribed or routinely mechanical. Pratt achieves the work’s alluring effect, with preeminent skill. 

Prior to Rounds, Pratt gave the audience the proper appetizer to prime the audience for the Utah premiere of Montgomery’s piece: Bach’s Piano Concerto in A Major, BWV 1055. The result was just as good and the audience rose quickly to its feet after the performance. 

In the opening movement, Pratt commanded full control of the right hand’s exuberant procession of semiquavers, while the orchestra kept the mood just as light and joyful. One might expect that, with a large complement of strings and the use of a modern keyboard, the work’s rich and dense textures might not be elucidated fully but this was not an issue. The middle Larghetto movement was spectacular, as Pratt gave us an utmost sensitive demonstration of Bach’s emotional prowess as a composer. Pratt’s performance of the Larghetto was so elegantly nuanced that it extruded a particularly pensive bluesy vibe from the notes. Pratt brought the work home with a well-tempered boisterous character that was the perfect cue for what followed in Rounds.

Jessie Montgomery. Photo Credit: Jiyang Chen.

The concert’s second half was very good but it was difficult to recreate the phenomenal magic that the first half brought with the pair of Pratt performances. Abrams led the orchestra in a reading of the overture from his project, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, which originally was an oratorio but is now being expanded into a musical that is expected to premiere in Louisville in the fall of 2024, with the possibility of opening on Broadway in 2025. The work is still in development and while the overture is bombastic and strident in befitting one dimension of the legendary boxer’s persona, who is among Louisville’s most famous citizens, it will be interesting to see how Ali’s poetic and humorous lyricism are rendered in the complete work.

The notable footnote to the Utah Symphony’s performance of Appalachian Spring is that this was apparently the first time the orchestra played the work in its original entirety, as opposed to the shorter suite by which many are most familiar. Perhaps, we are so conditioned to the suite, which was composed for Martha Graham to choreograph, but the additional music does little to enhance the stature of the composition. Incidentally, it was Graham who came up with the title, taking a line from a Hart Crane poem. The choreography has nothing to do with the poem and apparently Graham just chose the title because she liked it at the moment. The ballet score, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, has been wildly popular, almost to the point of embarrassment, ever since its premiere. 

Even though this performance at more than a few moments was hectic and hesitant, especially in terms of the communication between conductor and orchestra, the audience nevertheless was satisfied. This goes to show that there is nothing wrong with a wabi-sabi feel in a performance of a very familiar work, even when it unquestionably fell short of perfection.

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