Permanent Culture: Zuill Bailey and Awadagin Pratt, Brahms Works for Cello and Piano

By Daniel Garrett

Zuill Bailey and Awadagin Pratt, Brahms Works for Cello and Piano
Telarc/Concord Music Group, 2011

Listening to Zuill Bailey and Awadagin Pratt’s Brahms Works for Cello and Piano, I hear something direct, honest, and intense—seeming modern—and then something more charming and formal, apparently classical; and I think about time.  Is time real?  Music, like friendship or love, can make you cry and laugh.  It can make you think.  Is time the only reality?  One longs for the serious as one wants to know things that matter, things that are important, lasting, and true.  One hears the mastery of music and it answers a longing that might have gone without note: one longs for the serious, and not out of the censorious, pious, rude, or vain desire to repudiate the frivolous, the inferior.  One wants to see something that can distinguish, if not merely dominate, a moment: one wants time to mean something; and music calls back past time, and gives order and rhythm to the present, and joyous expectation of the future.

Meditation and melody are a great part of the appeal of Brahms Works for Cello and Piano, as performed by cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Awadagin Pratt.  A melancholy aspect adds something deeply irresistible.  So much of what a listener wants in music is here—beauty, complexity, control, dynamism, and great emotion, both sadness and joy.  That can be no surprise.  Zuill Bailey studied at the Peabody Conservatory and Juilliard; and early in his career Bailey was a featured participant in the American premiere of Miklos Theodorakis’ “Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra” and Bailey performed Beethoven’s cello sonatas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Zuill Bailey, known for both his charismatic personality and expert technique, has performed at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and with symphony orchestras in Chicago, San Francisco, and other American cities, as well as abroad—including in China, England, France, Israel, Jordan, Russia, and Spain.  Such visits are not only for money or prestige: they help to keep the European art tradition in music alive, when much of public attention has gone to newer, simpler forms of music.  In addition, Zuill Bailey teaches cello at the University of Texas, and is artistic director of both El Paso Pro Musica and the Sitka Summer Music Festival.  It is impressive that success has not frozen his communal or creative impulses.  The long, rising melodic lines and shifts in patterns from Zuill Bailey’s cello make a strong impression in the Brahms “Sonata in E Minor.”  The piano of Awadagin Pratt, which initially provides the lightest of touches—a tinkling sound—becomes first attendant then duet partner; and between the two there is meditation and momentum.  The cello seems to sing as its notes grow higher.

The pianist Awadagin Pratt is himself a prodigy, having begun playing piano when he was a boy, and later studying at the Peabody Conservatory as did Zuill Bailey.  Awadagin Pratt was the first Peabody student to receive diplomas in three areas of performance: piano and violin as well as conducting; and, though he is celebrated for his international performances and featured on television and in magazines, Pratt also teaches piano at the University of Cincinnati.  The “Sonata in E Minor” that Pratt and Bailey perform is meditative and percussive, and then there is a waltzing rhythm that disarms with its happy sprightliness, and the listener is pleased by how two tones—something happy and somber; and something classical and modern—can exist simultaneously.  Pratt’s piano-playing becomes insistent without being abrasive.  With a variation of tempo and tone, Pratt and Bailey achieve a refined intensity, controlled and expressive.

In the music of Brahms, enduring and evolved forms of expression, it is obvious that a great goal has been identified, pursued, and fulfilled: something desired by an individual that others have accepted, loved, revered.  The Hamburg-born German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) studied cello, violin, and piano, and met the famous composer Robert Schumann, who liked the work of Brahms and began to celebrate him.  (It is hard to exaggerate the importance of a friend with cultural power in the career of an artist: Robert Schumann, who was born in 1810 and died in 1856, was a bookdealer’s son who loved romantic literature and wrote about music as well as composed it; and Schumann was known for his art songs, some of which were inspired by poet Heinrich Heine, and Schumann’s marriage to the loyal and popular pianist Clara Wieck, who championed Schumann’s work and that of Brahms.)  Johannes Brahms was a composer who worked as a conductor, and it took time for his compositions—more austere than expected or preferred—to become popular; and his seven-part “German Requiem,” inspired by the deaths of his mother and Robert Schumann, achieved that for him in 1868, though he did not become a full-time composer until 1874, moving from a focus on the piano to the symphony, writing for different instruments.

Listening to the low, slow beginning of “Feldeinsamkeit,” on Zuill Bailey and Awadagin Pratt’s Brahms Works for Cello and Piano, the word sonorous kept coming to my mind.  That composition recalls the opening of the collection, “Lerchangesang.”  It is fascinating that neither instrument, cello or piano, ever sounds routine or slack; and the cello has a soft, warm tone in “Wie Melodien,” and the short piece “Sapphische Ode” seems an extension of what has come before, a continuation of a sensitive and thoughtful mood.  There is a rising cascade of piano notes accompanying the cello’s expansive sound in “Liebestreu,” and then Pratt’s playing becomes percussive rather than pretty, though it still pleases.

Awadagin Pratt’s collaboration with Zuill Bailey allows his own talent to gather and glow, and confirms why Pratt has inspired attention and respect for a long time: winning the international Naumburg piano competition and an Avery Fisher career grant; performing in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New York (and around the world, in Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland, South Africa, and Switzerland); conducting music for institutions such as the American Symphony Orchestra and the National Conducting Institute and various city symphonies; and being selected as artistic director of Pennsylvania’s chamber music Next Generation festival.  It is a little annoying that Pratt’s dark skin, thick locks of hair, and sometimes casual dress, have drawn almost as much comment as his unique abilities.  Pratt, whose excellence is proof against provincialism in both high and low places, has appeared in recital with Zuill Bailey many times.  On Pratt and Bailey’s Brahms Works for Cello and Piano, the “Sonatensatz” is faster than “Liebestreu,” even livelier, evoking entreaty and response: a conversational drama, with the cello’s higher notes recalling now the voice of a violin.

“Minnelied,” on Brahms Works for Cello and Piano, has the soft start of a lullaby but an adult elaboration.  The “Sonata in F Major” is richly vibrant, slow yet intense, before becoming even more dynamic with the discernible presence of passion; and the elements found in other pieces—complex, percussive, varied—are found here too, suggesting delicacy and strength.  The last piece in the collection, a lullaby, “Wiegenlied,” actually does sound like a fond farewell.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett, who likes jazz, independent rock, and world music, originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or