Art of the Piano: a festival for the rest of us

Awadagin Pratt seeks to change the color of the pianistic landscape

“It’s a big shift,” said Awadagin Pratt, founder and artistic director of the Art of the Piano festival.

Specifically, he’s referring to the 2022 festival’s decision to reduce the number of pianists in its Young Artists Program in order to give each of them an opportunity to be featured more broadly.

But if you look at the history of Art of the Piano, “big shift” could have been the guiding principle from the outset. Pratt never intended his festival to be one of those headline-chasing mega-gatherings like the International Chopin Piano Competition or the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Unlike those musical institutions, Art of the Piano has been in a state of evolution since it began. It’s not because anything was wrong or needed fixing. Rather, Pratt founded a festival that was meant to mirror its times. And in this era of music history that has called for a certain measure of fluidity, Art of the Piano was meant to grow and evolve with the music and the world around it.

The festival has a special focus on new music. World premieres abound. But at the same time, there is something decidedly old-school about it. Pratt is fond of noting that his inspiration for the creative heart of Art of the Piano were Franz Liszt’s legendary masterclasses in the 19th Century.

On the festival’s home page, Pratt writes that his vision was to “recreate an environment where expert-level artists can work to build the profile and artistry of talented, budding players.” Liszt couldn’t have said it any better.

But it is what is not said on that home page that is even more striking. 

Look through the list of the distinguished musicians who make up the festival’s faculty. Most are between 35 and 45 years old – relatively young for this type of gathering. Even more conspicuous, though, is that they don’t look like the pianists you might find at an old-school competition or festival. They are, in every way, representative of the world around us.

“We are changing the color of the landscape,” said Pratt. He means that in every way you could possibly interpret it.

That particular goal received a major boost in January, when the Sphinx Organization awarded Pratt $100,000 for the inaugural Nina Simone Piano Competition, to be presented in summer 2023. What is most intriguing is that the competition is not intended to be a free-standing event. Rather, it is being launched as a component of Art of The Piano. And it fits seamlessly into the philosophy that Pratt has spent so much of his career promoting. It is a competition for young African-American pianists and will be presented at the College-Conservatory of Music in partnership with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

“We say we are training the next generations of superstars,” said Pratt. And it’s true that many members of past Young Artists cohorts have been making their marks on concert stages around the world. 

But Pratt wants more than that. He talks of meeting a brilliant young pianist – a Juilliard grad – he had never heard of before. For Pratt, who has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of up-and-coming pianists, it was something of a shock.

“He had been encouraged not to enter competitions,” Pratt said. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t one of those students favored by the faculty. Or possibly, it was because he wasn’t regarded as someone who could actually win a competition. Whatever the case, here was a gifted young performer who seemed destined to sit on the sidelines.

“He is one of those people who should be in competitions,” said Pratt. “If you compete, you learn so much about your abilities as a performer. And people hear you – they are exposed to you. You know, there are plenty of people who get performance opportunities that don’t win competitions.”

Pratt recalls his own experience as a student at the Peabody Institute.

“There was a black dean when I got there,” he said. “Her name was Eileen Cline and her being in that position made all the difference. There was a solid community of African American musicians there. We were supported. And we had opportunities to play other than our 15-minute jury every year. In another school, I might have been overlooked.”

He pauses a moment, then chooses his words very carefully.

“There is no part of American society that racism doesn’t permeate. Not even the great centers of education.”

Art of the Piano is unlikely to ever rival the glamor of high-profile piano events. But that has never been the point. If Pratt has his way, Art of the Piano will become a new type of showcase for music. “Inclusive?” “Color-blind?” The terms have become overused. But if this year’s festival is any indication of what is to come, Art of the Piano will become a festival for the rest of us. 

Progressive, forward-thinking music. Performers and composers who see the world through different eyes than their predecessors. A meshing of musical styles that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.

“It’s an exciting time for musicians,” said Pratt. “But more than that, it is a time filled with opportunity.”

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