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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, July 15, 2024


Feb. 11, 2003 – It's classical music from A to Z at Tillett Gardens on Wednesday night — that being A as in pianist Awadagin Pratt and Z as in cellist Zuill Bailey.
Pratt, the internationally acclaimed, multi-talented musician from Normal, Illinois, has become a familiar figure on classical music stages in the Virgin Islands — from his first solo appearance at Island Center in 1996 and dates at the Reichhold Center for the Arts in 1997 and 1998 to his Classics in the Garden / St. John School of the Arts performances in 2002 and 2002.
Bailey, like Pratt an alumnus of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, is making his Virgin Islands debut, but what is sure to be a comfortable one, as this is the second season that the two musicians have been touring as a duo — and collecting considerable kudos in the process.
In addition to Wednesday's Classics in the Garden recital, they also will perform Thursday at the St. John School of the Arts and Friday at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College on Tortola.
Their program for all three recitals will open with J.S. Bach's Sonata No. 2 in D Major, BWV 1028, to be followed by Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 in A Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 69. After an intermission, they will perform Debussy's Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano and, finally, Brahms' Sonata in E minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 38.
As luck would have it, this is the program they presented last May in Washington, D.C., where Joseph McLellan, a critic for The Washington Post, opined that Pratt, "one of the best young pianists on the international scene, has found an excellent partner for duet sonatas" in Bailey.
Assessing their performance, McLellan wrote: "At one point or another, the four works called for virtually everything a cello and piano can be expected to do in the classical tradition, and it was all done with grace, style and easy technique. The players often pushed the music to its expressive limits, as young players tend to do, but they pushed it with remarkable unanimity.
"Bailey produced a tone as rich as melted chocolate in the opening phrase of Brahms' Sonata in E Minor, Op. 39, contrasting with many haunting, suggestive wisps and fragments of sound in Debussy's Sonata in D Minor and the dance-imbued baroque melodies in Bach's Sonata No. 2 (originally for viola da gamba and harpsichord). As usual, Pratt's performance showed not only flawless technique and intense emotional involvement, but also careful consideration for the exact phrasing and accent of every motif.
"The climax of the program was Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 in A, Op. 69, one of the greatest duet sonatas of all time. Its wide range of shifting feelings and its daunting technical challenges were met with passion and precision."
Pratt studied piano, violin and tennis from an early age and had his choice of tennis or music scholarships when he was ready to start college at the age of 16. He began music studies at the University of Illinois but transferred to Peabody, where he went on to become the first person in history to receive undergraduate diplomas in three areas — piano, violin and conducting. His career prospects were sealed when in 1992, at the age of 26, he won the prestigious Naumburg International Piano Competition, which put him onto what quickly became a highly successful concert circuit. That led two years later to an equally prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, an award given annually to the most promising concert artists.
A decade ago, emerging on the classical music scene, Pratt caught the attention of the popular media by looking and acting different from your typical classical pianist. For starters, he was African-American, putting him in the rarefied atmosphere of Andre Watts and … well, it was hard to come up with other names of superstar black classical pianists. He wore his hair in dreadlocks, which he flung about with abandon as he played the grandest of concert pianos seated on a little bitty stool that required him to hunch over the ivories.
One of his Peabody professors, Robert Weirich, recalls of Pratt: "He was always experimenting — things went crazy sometimes, but they were never dull. When he plays, he's one of these very rare people who make you hear a piece as if for the first time."
Does Pratt take himself seriously as an artist? Absolutely, and the accolades continue to pile up to prove it. But he also has a keen sense of his own humanity — he titled his first CD "A Long Way from Normal," a double entre reference to his roots. He still wears his hair in his signature locks, but that doesn't mean he won't shave his head before he turns 37 on March 6. (But don't bet on it.)
Bailey, who grew up near Washington, D.C., came from a family of classical musicians. His parents were ready to start him on music lessons at the age of 4, but were advised against violin, since his 6-year-old sister was already studying that instrument. His parents started taking him to symphony concerts to see what might appeal to him, and it worked. He fell in love with the cello, and the affair has been uninterrupted ever since.
As a participant in the National Symphony Fellowship Program, he came under the tutelage of legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who conducted the symphony. As a freshman at Peabody, he won the National Federation of Music Clubs Young Artists competition, which afforded him concert and recital bookings while still an undergraduate. He moved to The Juilliard School for graduate work, studying under Joel Krosnick of the Juilliard String Quartet.
An avid chamber musician, Bailey also is presenting concerts this season as a member of the Perlman/Schmidt/Bailey Trio, as well as serving as artistic director of the El Paso (Texas) Pro Musica Chamber Festival. He is a well-known guest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Like most classical musicians who have attained a certain status, Bailey plays an instrument that is a priceless historic instrument. His cello is the "ex Mischa Schneider" Goffriller made in 1693. "This is the one Schneider had for many of his years in the Budapest String Quartet, I believe from about 1940-1967," he explains. "It is an incredible instrument and extremely rare, because it is one of only two cellos by this maker to have a rosette carved on the top. With the help of a generous sponsor, I was able to acquire it in 1997."
Both artists have parlayed their classical talents into popular entertainment areas in recent years.
In 2001, Pratt was featured on the soundtrack of the film "The Caveman's Valentine." Much of the music, composed by Terence Blanchard, is for two pianos and orchestra. Pratt played one; Blanchard, the other. (The film starred Samuel L. Jackson as a troubled classical pianist who becomes a hermit in a New York park then ventures back into society to try to solve the murder of a young man whose body is found there.)
Bailey recorded on two soundtracks for the NBC series "Homicide: Life on the Street," and this led to his appearance in the on-screen role of a murderous cellist in several episodes of the HBO prison fantasy/thriller series "Oz." He is revisiting that role in new segments this season.
To learn more about Pratt's life and love of music, check out his lengthy but highly readable biography on the Awadagin Pratt Web site.
For background on Bailey, read an online interview in the newsletter of the Internet Cello Society.
Ticket information
St. John School of the Arts, Cruz Bay — 8 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $30 for general admission and $25 for students with I.D. They are available at Connections in Cruz Bay and will be sold at the door if seating is still available; however, due to limited seating, advance
purchase is strongly recommended. Reservations are not taken by telephone. There will be a cash bar. For more information, call 779-4322.
For ticket information on Wednesday's performance on St. Thomas, see "Pratt, Bailey play Wednesday in Tillett Gardens".
For information on the Classics in the Atrium concert Friday on Tortola, call (284) 494-4994.

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