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Rite of Passage 

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AWADAGIN PRATT

at Mandel Hall, January 29

Until the early 70s the world of classical music was dominated by men of European extraction. This was understandable since the tradition of classical music was created and sustained in Europe almost exclusively by men. There were notable women composers and performers--from the medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen to Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn--but most worked in the shadows of their more famous relatives and their achievements survive mainly as footnotes in musical histories. Even fewer in number were musicians of non-European ancestry. We read of an occasional Arab or African in a French or Italian court orchestra, but the stories tend to emphasize the oddity of non-Europeans trying to participate in an art only Europeans could create and appreciate. This attitude, less blatantly expressed, persists to this day, even though a rising tide of Asians and African Americans have established distinguished careers as composers, conductors, and performers. In a recent Wall Street Journal profile a Korean student at the Juilliard says he's been asked more than once, "As an Oriental, how can you understand Mozart or Brahms?" According to violinist Young Uck Kim, the most insidious prejudice Asians have to deal with is that they play like "robots"--all technical precision and no soul.

Before the late 70s the most visible Asians on the international concert scene were the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa and the Bombay-born Zubin Mehta, and the only notable soloist was the Chinese pianist Fou T'song, a decent pianist better known as Yehudi Menuhin's son-in-law. Since then the trickle of new talent has turned into a flood. From South Korea came the prodigiously gifted Chung family, from Taiwan violinist Cho-Liang Lin, from Japan pianist Mitsuko Uchida, from the Philippines pianist Cecile Licad--to name only a few. In this country the reputation of the Chinese American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who gave a sold-out solo recital here last December, has soared with breathtaking rapidity. As the old European-trained instrumentalists have retired, scores of Asian Americans have taken their places. In 1977 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of solid German lineage, hired its first Asian American, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh. Today Yeh has four Asian American colleagues, all first-rate string players.

The trend shows no signs of abating. For every headline-grabbing Sarah Chang there are dozens of teen wonders waiting in the wings. At some of the world's finest conservatories, such as the Juilliard, up to one-third of the students claim some sort of Asian connection. China in particular is supplying a steady flow of talented and hardworking musicians who will likely enrich the classical music culture the way Russians have for generations. The Shanghai Quartet and the North Shore's Ying Quartet as well as composers like Bright Sheng are already making their marks.

But Africans and African Americans are still conspicuously under-represented on the classical scene. Except in opera--where Marian Anderson's example inspired legions of gifted followers--the number of black musicians is astoundingly low. The CSO, for example, has yet to appoint a black instrumentalist, though it claims to have tried hard to recruit one. Prominent and durable black instrumental soloists and maestros can be counted on one's fingers: pianist Andre Watts, Chicago Sinfonietta's Paul Freeman, the CSO's Michael Morgan. I suspect black youngsters in this country eagerly gravitate to more popular and indigenous idioms like jazz, while Asian families place a premium on classical training for their children as an emblem of civilized attainment, ironically preferring European music to their own. Elitism has also motivated well-off Asians to attend more and more concerts, especially those featuring one of their own. (At the Ma recital there was an unusually large Asian presence.) African Americans also turn out for their own, but to a much lesser degree.

Awadagin Pratt may be a harbinger of things to come--his recital last month at Mandel Hall was sold out, a remarkable feat for a debut. Winner of the 1992 Naumburg competition, the 26-year-old pianist has attracted more notice than the prestigious prize normally garners. There's no doubt that his African ancestry--his father emigrated from Sierra Leone and taught in Normal, Illinois--makes him a welcome novelty. And his academic trifecta--the first graduate of the Peabody Conservatory to receive diplomas in piano, violin, and conducting--certainly deserves the big buzz. Concert impresarios keen on multiculturalism must see the young pianist determinedly pursuing a solo career as box-office potential on the order of Andre Watts.

Pratt offered the predominantly Hyde Park crowd a thoughtful survey on how the fugue--that fanciful Baroque invention--has been treated by composers from Bach to Franck. The art of the fugue is absorbing in the simplicity of its concept and the complexity of its execution. As the program notes point out, the form requires a theme to "fly" from one voice to another in imitative fashion, and during the course of a fugue the theme can be "heard in augmentation (longer note values), diminution (shorter note values), inversion (contrary motion), and retrograde motion (backwards)." For composers up to the challenge, the trick has always been to meet these formal criteria without becoming stiff and predictable.

Bach, who pioneered the use of the fugue, was represented on the program by his Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903), an adroit showpiece in which seeming improvisation gives way to a mathematically precise, classic statement built on a chromatic line whose notes are an anagram of Bach's name. The florid passages in particular seemed to suit Pratt's rather self-absorbed mannerisms. A strapping man with powerful shoulders, he sat on a custom-made bench hunched over the keyboard, playing with a beguiling obliviousness. He had a field day with the extravagant runs and arpeggios but got bogged down in the web of counterpoint. His handling of the fugue was more often muddled than not.

Subtlety and a keen grasp of architectonics are not yet among Pratt's virtues. Like most prodigies who are overly anxious to impress, he's letting a dazzling command of technique compensate for interpretive insecurities, relying a bit too much on brawn over brains. Nowhere were these shortcomings more evident than in Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, which concluded the recital. With its tightly woven design, sweeping gestures, and pianistic erudition, this masterpiece requires care and grace in the unfolding of its majestic logic. Pratt dispatched several of the 25 variations with ease and elan and brought out the lush melodiousness of others. But as the momentum was building for the grand fugal finale more and more clunkers marred the delivery. By the time he got into the complex fugue his dynamic range had narrowed to loud and louder. It was the sort of heavily blemished performance that is an inevitable part of a newcomer's rite of passage.

Surprisingly, given Pratt's verve and impetuosity, Beethoven's Sonata no. 31 was given a subdued, lyrical, almost soulful reading. The greatness of the piece, as in most of the major works of the composer's late period, lies in the profound shifts in mood that are expressed ever so subtly through elaborate thematic developments. The fugue appears here in the last movement, after the prevailing melancholia has moved the listener into a state of sadness and contemplation--which Pratt's performance did rather well. The perky fugue subject suddenly dispels the gloom, tolling brightly like Sunday church bells. When the morose theme threatens to return, bursts of optimism quickly overwhelm it. Pratt, with clear and forceful articulation, was quite persuasive in effecting this transition.

In Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue--whose structure was intended as an homage to Bach--the fugue again comes across as pealing bells. Unlike the Beethoven, it's not strict- ly contrapuntal: the freewheeling Franck--a true son of French romanticism--put in enough digressions to liven up the mood. Indeed, from the improvisatory prelude on, this work is almost rococo in its playing around with the formal rules--at once amusing and amazing. Pratt, who paid attention to the exotic textures and playful irreverences, turned in a pleasing performance. Yet by making Franck sound better than Brahms in a concert devoted to the art of the fugue, Pratt showed he's not quite ready for prime time.

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