San Diego Symphony and Awadagin Pratt Bring New Piano Concerto to La Jolla

Although the piano concerto is an undeniable staple of orchestral repertory, contemporary composers have not done well by this esteemed genre. So it is not surprising that the enterprising pianist Awadagin Pratt commissioned—through the Art of the Piano Foundation—seven young composers to write works for piano and string orchestra.

Awadagin Pratt [photo courtesy of the artist]

Under the baton of guest conductor Yaniv Dinur, the San Diego Symphony and Pratt performed Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra Thursday at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center. One of Pratt’s seven commissions, Montgomery’s brilliant, 15-minute concerto packs into a single movement the thrill and challenge of a traditional three-movement piano concerto.

Structured as a traditional rondo, Rounds alternates explosive sections of driving, aggressive figures pursued equally by the piano and strings with slow, mysterious interludes in which an eerie violin theme hovers over quiet, rolled piano chords. Montgomery’s idiom is unabashedly tonal, yet the density of her textures and the complexity of her asymmetrical themes places serious demands on both the performers and the listeners.

Pratt’s formidable technique persuasively communicated the power of Montgomery’s concerto, which he premiered a year ago with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra. For all of Pratt’s bold thematic declamation, often expressed in large, dense chords moving in parallel motion, he still managed to coax ringing cantabile themes from The Conrad’s Steinway, an instrument that does not yield such beauty easily.

From the printed program we learn that Pratt will join the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music this summer. We can only hope this move will markedly increase his participation in the West Coast’s music scene.

Yaniv Dinur last conducted the San Diego Symphony in September of 2021 at a Rady Shell Tchaikovsky extravaganza. His superlative conducting transcended the arduous task of leading the 1812 Overture while canons boomed and fireworks exploded from a boat in the adjacent bay.

Observing him more closely in the tranquil, acoustically nonpareil setting of the 500-seat Baker-Baum Concert Hall only increased my appreciation of Dinur’s relaxed command on the podium, not to mention his occasional deft humorous touches. The program’s two standard repertory pieces—Prokofiev’s First Symphony and Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D Major—he conducted from memory, and each unfolded with graceful urgency.

In the Prokofiev, he elicited cleanly etched lines and pellucid textures that elucidated the symphony’s charming Neoclassical idiom. His bold fortes in the Gavotte may have been excessive for the modest hall, but his jubilant account of the breathless finale was beyond reproach.

The virtues of Dinur’s Haydn London Symphony matched those of his Prokofiev Symphony on the program’s first half. The orchestra’s strings gave Haydn’s opening Allegro an unusually buoyant warmth, and Dinur caught the coy humor of Haydn’s subtle surprises in the Menuet.

It is rare to encounter two unknown works on a symphony program, but Dinur opened the concert with Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No. 1 for Strings. A modestly-scaled symphony in three moments from 1954, Perkinson’s Sinfonietta is elegantly structured and abounds in appealing melodies. I suggest this accomplished African-American composer is overdue for a revival.

This concert by the San Diego Symphony was presented in La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on Thursday, April 13, 2023, and will be repeated there on April 14; also repeated at Rancho Santa Fe’s Village Church on April 15.

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