Who knew so much good could come from Tacoma having a sister city in Cuba?
Last year, Northwest Sinfonietta, the Tacoma-based professional orchestra that regularly brings its exciting programs to Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, organized two cultural exchange events with the Cuban town of Cienfuegos.
In January 2012, Northwest Sinfonietta became only the third American orchestra to perform in Cuba since the country’s 1959 revolution. In October, members of Cienfuegos chamber group Orquestra de Cámara Concierto Sur joined the Sinfonietta and music director Christophe Chagnard for local performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
That rare experience for classical musicians from two adversarial nations yielded something else: Chagnard’s “Embargo: Suite Cubana,” a new composition to be performed by Northwest Sinfonietta Friday in Benaroya Hall, followed by weekend performances in Tacoma and Puyallup. (See www.nwsinfonietta.org for locations.)
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Chagnard will be turning his conductor’s role over to a guest: the celebrated pianist Awadagin Pratt, who last performed with NWS in 2002.
“He’s a great pianist,” Chagnard says by phone, “but I’ve seen him conduct and liked his approach. I very much trust him to bring out all of the music in ‘Embargo.’ ”
“I think Christophe captured the spirit of Cuba very well,” says Pratt. “I’m excited to hear what the piece sounds like with the orchestra and added percussion. It’s well-crafted and pretty evocative of the spirit of Cuba.”
Pratt will also take the reins for a pair of Mozart compositions: the Piano Concerto No. 23 (he will play as well as conduct) and Symphony No. 39.
“The symphony is one of his last,” Pratt says. “It’s a very interesting work, capturing epic and operatic qualities. There’s a high drama feeling to it — a lot of energy and drive, a lot of rhythmic and harmonic tension.”
As for the concerto, he says “there is so much joy and fun in the piece. It shows a love of playing music. It’s tremendously positive and energizing. The slow, second movement is profoundly beautiful, a distillation of loneliness. But the last movement is rollicking and frolicking.”
Pratt’s rise in music came at a cost to the sports world. Though he began studying both violin and piano at a tender age, the Pittsburgh native proved so adept at tennis he achieved ranking in the Midwest and was offered tennis scholarships. Instead, he accepted a violin scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, later transferring to the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he earned degrees in piano, violin and conducting.
“I knew music was the most important thing in my life,” he says. “But I was pressured to choose between violin and piano. Playing both gave me insights into music others didn’t have, but at 23 I finally committed to piano.”
Pratt, 47, has performed three times in the White House: twice for the Clintons, and once for the Obamas.
“It’s incredible,” he says. “Any time you play anywhere, you give 100 percent. At the White House you give 1,000 percent. There’s no better address at which to play.”
Tom Keogh: email@example.com