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See Awadagin Pratt’s Incredible ‘Rounds’ While You Can

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A Black man with a beard in a black and red jacket plays a grand piano.
Awadagin Pratt at the piano. Having recently joined the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Pratt performs Jessie Montgomery's 'Rounds' this weekend with the New Century Chamber Orchestra.  (Robert Reck)

In attending live music, one must always be open to the element of surprise.

Case in point: I’d gone to the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s performance in Berkeley Thursday night to see a short piece by the composer Florence Price, whose discovered trove of manuscripts in 2009 has led to a recent renaissance. Another draw of the concert was Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, what with the biopic Maestro still fresh on my mind.

But the jaw-dropping highlight of the program, which repeats Friday at the Green Music Center and Saturday at the Presidio Theatre, was pianist Awadagin Pratt’s performance of Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds. Re-reading my notebook, I see that while Pratt commanded the piano keys, I scrawled things like “holy shit,” “D E L I C A T E ~then~ thundering,” and “this is what classical music needs in 2024.”

Opening with precise string pizzicatos and weaving piano arpeggios, Rounds soon transformed into a beautiful discordance that pushed and pulled over the course of 15 minutes. At times, Pratt threw his head back, eyes closed, letting the unusual combinations of notes hang in the air. And the solo cadenza? It was one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve heard come out of a grand piano in years.

Pianist Awadagin Pratt and New Century Chamber Orchestra Director Daniel Hope at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley on May 2, 2024. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

David Diamond’s identically titled Rounds opened the program, evoking the Midwestern plains with humor and verve; a lively conversation between the upper and lower registers of the orchestra propelled the third movement. Florence Price’s short “Adoration” gave director and violinist Daniel Hope the spotlight, showing off a tender touch, and the chance to breathe amidst the rapid bowing required of the other pieces.


Closing the program was Bernstein’s Serenade, a five-part rumination on love that zig-zagged from manic to sorrowful. Without a formal conductor at a podium, the orchestra got a bit off in a few moments, but Bernstein’s fast-tempo sense of fun justified it, like a few apples bouncing overboard in a bumpy wagon race. The fifth movement, an early evocation of jazz in classical music, still sounded very modern, and ridiculously fast playing by Hope brought everything to a final halt.

But yes, it was Awadagin Pratt’s night. There’s a reason his recording of Rounds won a Grammy Award, and here in the Bay Area, we can count ourselves lucky that he recently joined the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a professor of piano.

Saturday marks Pratt’s first performance in San Francisco since joining the faculty — may there be many more here to come.

Awadagin Pratt and the New Century Chamber Orchestra perform on Friday, May 3 at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, and on Saturday, May 4 at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco. Find tickets and details here.

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