TSO Elegant

Guest artists join the Tucson Symphony for back-to-back performances

In back-to-back concerts next week, the Tucson Symphony is collaborating with two glamorous guest artists, highly individual men in their late 30s who've proven repeatedly that glamour shouldn't be confused with superficial glitz.

Violinist Joshua Bell, though he's a year younger than pianist Awadagin Pratt, has had the longer career. He was soloing with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14, a mere 10 years after his parents got tired of hearing him make noise with carefully pitched rubber bands stretched across his dresser drawers and gave him a real violin. Bell easily made the transition from child prodigy to adult artist, and since the late 1980s, he has led a new wave of string players who are reintroducing some old-fashioned, once discredited, extremely personal elements of romantic expression into their stylish, polished performances.

As a kid, Pratt started out playing violin as well as piano, and didn't settle on the keyboard until he was a young adult studying at the Peabody Conservatory. He hit the national scene at the comparatively normal age of 26 when, in 1992, he won the prestigious Naumburg Competition in New York. Two years ago, Pratt made his TSO debut, substituting at the last minute for an indisposed pianist; his face almost at keyboard level, his body perched on a tiny stool in the Glenn Gould manner, Pratt gave a riveting performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto that managed to convey power without brutality and sparkle without slickness.

Bell, too, has performed with the TSO, but that was back in his early 20s. He's enough of a classical superstar now that he's being brought back as a celebrity attraction for one night only. He's the main event on an all-Tchaikovsky program, performing that Russian composer's sole, tremendously popular violin concerto. It's a work that figured on one of Bell's first CDs in 1988, and at the end of January, he'll be recording it again during concert performances with the Berlin Philharmonic under Michael Tilson Thomas.

After playing the Tchaikovsky concerto so often over nearly two decades, can Bell possibly have anything fresh to say about the work?

"I'm always trying to find the most organic way to play it," he says. "It's a challenge to meet the piece on its own terms and not make it seem like a series of episodes. I'm always trying to refine it, and I've reached the point at which I'm ready to put it down on disc again. If I felt tired and burned out, I wouldn't play it. But right now, I'm really in love with the piece again.

"For me it feels like a different piece. A lot of the things I'm doing with it now are very subtle. I'm more conscious of the structure, and I try to bring out the lighter, more balletic elements of the piece. We think of it as this passionate, romantic concerto, but it's really an elegant piece, too, which is a side to it that I feel is often neglected. I'm having a lot more fun with it, taking more risks, and I think I'm telling the story in a more defined way."

Like Bell, Pratt resists treating the work he'll be playing with the TSO on the two following nights as simply a popular display piece. "I don't approach anything as a virtuoso vehicle," he insists. Still, Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor isn't exactly easy to play, and it did once thrill a certain hedonistic virtuoso named Franz Liszt. Yet, as Pratt points out, Liszt was impressed not by the technique it required but by the characteristics of Norwegian folk music Grieg managed to incorporate into the work, which like the Tchaikovsky violin concerto is full of gorgeous tunes.

Pratt has played the Grieg only about half as long as Bell has played the Tchaikovsky, but that's still long enough--10 years--to either get sick of the thing or fall into complacency. Pratt says he's in no danger of that.

"In good music, there's always an aspect of it that's better than you can ever play it, so there are always things to be discovered," he says. "I always try to approach it as something new, and stay open to discovery."

Both Pratt and Bell were raised in families supportive of their musical interests, and each attended a great music school (Peabody for Pratt, Indiana University for Bell). Both are tennis nuts, and they come across as smart, regular guys who happen to be superb musicians. What they don't have in common is being able to profit from their looks. Bell is handsome, boyish and white, which helped him turn some heads when he was a teenager. Pratt is handsome, big and black, with impressive dreadlocks, and all that turns the heads of paranoid law-enforcement officials. Once Pratt was stopped by a cop and thrown in jail for 18 hours simply because he looked "suspicious" running to class. He's still pulled aside for random searches at airports.

None of this affects his composure at the piano. His look onstage is elegant in a deliberately casual manner, while his playing is notable for its focus and clarity, even in the dense scores he loves most (Beethoven and Liszt are two of his favorite composers).

Pratt will find himself at the center of a Nordic program in Tucson; conductor George Hanson and the orchestra will open the concert with some of German composer Max Bruch's Swedish Dances, and close with the dynamic Symphony No. 4, "Inextinguishable," by Denmark's Carl Nielsen. As for Bell's concert, his performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto will follow Hanson and the TSO's renditions of the Russian composer's Polonaise from "Eugene Onegin" and Serenade for Strings.