Awadagin Pratt & Jessie Montgomery’s Grammy-Winning Rounds        

April 25, 2024

Photograph by Jiyang Chen Photography
Story by Kyle MacMillan

Jessie Montgomery’s first piano concerto, which won the 2024 Grammy Award for best contemporary classical composition, ranks among the classical world’s biggest success stories of the past two years, and the work’s popularity just keeps soaring.

Since its world premiere in March 2022, Rounds has received more than 50 performances by 30 ensembles, including such heavy-hitters as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Minnesota Orchestra.

And more presentations are on the way, including July 25 and 26 concerts at the Colorado Music Festival that will showcase Rounds with Music Director Peter Oundjian on the podium and the soloist for whom it was written, Awadagin Pratt, front and center.

“It’s a very cool piece,” the veteran pianist said. “It’s been very popular with audiences. It has dimension to it, it has depth to it. A lot of beauty to it, and a lot energy to it. It’s been very rewarding to play and to be able to share with audiences.”

Oundjian has long been a fan of Montgomery, Musical America’s 2023 Composer of the Year. Her career got a big boost in April 2021, when the Chicago Symphony named her as its 11th composer-in-residence, a post that concludes at the end of the 2024-25 season. “Jessie is a really interesting composer,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed the spirit of her music and hearing it develop as she writes more and more.”

The two also share a special connection as previous members of noted string quartets. Oundjian served as first violinist of the famed Tokyo String Quartet, and Montgomery was a member in 2012-2020 of the Catalyst String Quartet, which championed Strum (2006-12), the first work that gained her widespread notice.

Pratt grabbed the classical world’s attention when he won the Naumburg International Piano Competition in 1992 and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant two years later, and he has gone on to enjoy a distinguished performing career since. 

The pianist has devoted much of his career to teaching, starting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 2005, where he ascended to the post of professor of music. Last fall, he moved to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, attracted to the school’s first-rate facilities and its approach to preparing students for the realities of 21st-century careers. “The opportunity came and I leapt at it,” he said.

In 2023, Pratt was featured in a documentary film version of a narrated musical program that he put together in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. Titled Awadagin Pratt: Black in America, it chronicles what he called the “staggering” number of times he has been stopped by police because of the color of his skin. “I realized that many people have no idea of the number of things that have happened to me in my lifetime, and I have no association with criminality or any artist record,” he said.

While that presentation examines the uglier side of race relations in the United States, Pratt has been encouraged by the efforts that classical organizations across the country are making toward greater equity and inclusion.  

“There has been talk of diversity my entire career,” he said, “but a lot of these efforts were just in name only, and I think now there is a little bit more execution — diversity in programming of composers, for example, Jessie Montgomery, but also in the artists. I think things are slowly improving.”

Rounds was commissioned by Pratt’s Art of the Piano Foundation with nine co-commissioning orchestras, including the Baltimore Symphony, Kansas City (Mo.) Symphony, and Indianapolis Symphony taking part in the project.

“For all intents and purposes I do consider it a concerto,” Montgomery said, “but I think of it more as a rhapsody for piano and string orchestra.” The piece runs 15 minutes, about the same duration as George Gershwin’s famed Rhapsody in Blue.

In her program notes for the work, she describes it as “a rondo, within a rondo, within a rondo.” A rondo is a musical form that traces its beginnings to early Italian opera at the turn of the 17th century and consists in basic terms of a main theme that alternates with any number of contrasting themes.

But Montgomery is quick to admit that she doesn’t completely follow the traditional form. “There are a few foils in there. The cadenza breaks the pattern, which is very intentional, and within one or two of the rounds, instead of ABCBA it might be ABCBCBA or something like that,” she said, using letters to distinguish the work’s themes.

Montgomery and Pratt met and became friends at Alaska’s Sitka Chamber Music Festival when the composer was still an active violinist, but this work marked the first time they collaborated on a project.   

Since this was Montgomery’s first work for piano, he helped her understand the technical parameters of the instrument, and she allowed him to largely craft the cadenza. “The cadenza is mine, and it’s probably 10- to 20-percent improvisation each night depending on what is going on,” he said. “It stays pretty fresh.”

Drawing on the baroque-era origins of the rondo and wanting to showcase Pratt as much as possible, Oundjian is excited to feature Rounds alongside J.S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in A major, BWV 1055, on July 25 and 26.  

Completing the program is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a thrilling, ever-popular 1880 symphonic suite based on the celebrated collection of Middle Eastern folk tales known as the Arabian Nights.  

“I always try to find a way for people to have the opportunity to experience contemporary music, Oundjian said, “but, hopefully, it will be in a context in which they feel comfortable.” 

Music Director Peter Oundjian conducts the program Awadagin Pratt + Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on Thursday, July 25 and Friday, July 26. Tickets are now available. 

Plan Your Festival Visit


Visiting Boulder

The Festival performs in beautiful Boulder, Colorado — a breathtaking location full of nature, culture, cuisine, art, and more.

Learn About Our Educational Programs


Festival Fellows

Meet the Festival Fellows: eight aspiring professional musicians who receive coaching and performance opportunities through the Festival and its guest artists.

Center for Musical Arts

This excellent community music school is also the educational arm of our organization.