Garrick Ohlsson’ Photo Credit: Dario Acosta

Awadagin Pratt’s “Art of the Piano” Festival Comes to SFCM

Pratt’s festival began in Cincinnati in 2011, modeled after Franz Liszt’s masterclasses. (2011 was also the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth.) “Liszt was incredibly generous as a teacher,” Pratt says, “and taught in these masterclass formats where anybody that traveled to him could attend for free. So I was inspired to use this ‘all masterclass’ format, which remains unique among festivals, certainly in this country.” The young artists in the program include SFCM’s Christian Douglas, who studies with Pratt, as well as pianists from Poland, Puerto Rico, Japan, Italy, China, and South Korea.

As a programming theme, Liszt naturally took pride of place in the inaugural festival, but as Pratt says, “We had this evolution from going from an educationally focused festival to being equally a ‘real’ performing arts festival, because of the caliber of artists we’ve brought in. We’ve done a lot of new music and living composers; a few years ago we had composers in residence.”

“This first year in San Francisco, there’s not really a theme, but we’re influenced by recent new music and want to expose our young artists to corners of the repertoire that they may not be as familiar with,” Pratt continued. “It’s a fantastic array of diverse musical styles and performers we have: We’ll have improvisation, too, and explore the entire range of what’s possible at a piano.”

To that end, Pratt’s opening performance will feature mainstays like Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky, but also still-living modern touchstones like Philip Glass and Fred Hersh. Mikael Darmanie (who performs both as a solo artist and with Warp Trio) will be performing material from artists ranging from Roomful of Teeth’s Caroline Shaw to jazz legend Duke Ellington.

SFCM will be represented by Garrick Ohlsson’s all-Chopin program, and Piano Department Chair Yoshikazu Nagai, along with Jon Nakamatsu, are both participating as well. Other piano luminaries include Simone Dinnerstein, whose recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations from 2007 was widely hailed as a new landmark recording of the famed work, and Bay Area luminary Stephen Prutsman, a longstanding Kronos Quartet collaborator.

Pratt intends for the Art of the Piano festival to alternate yearly at SFCM with one of his foundation’s other efforts, the Nina Simone Competition for African American Pianists. The first-ever installment of the Competition was held in Cincinnati last year.

“It was always Simone’s dream to be the first African-American concert pianist,” Pratt says. “Simone studied at Juilliard to prepare for her audition at Curtis, but for all the obvious and myriad reasons at the time, she wasn’t able to pursue that. Part of the naming was about having this forum, if you will, for young people who have that dream and how we could help them realize that.”

The festival, Pratt says, is “about exposing students to a broad array of genres and repertoire possible and learning about the myriad of ways to develop a career.”

Tickets for the Art of the Piano festival are available via the SFCM Box Office, reachable at (415) 503-6318 during 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.