MUSIC APPRECIATION: Iris Collective presents Awadagin Pratt, African-American Piano Aficionado and Activist

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Music. An essential part of the African-American cultural experience in the U.S. (and abroad). Historically, we were known for having revolutionized spirituals, jazz, blues and rock ‘n roll. However, there is an underground genre in which African-Americans were also influential, but much less talked about, and very seldom given credit for having made an impact.

Classical music. According to the Jim Crowe Museum, in 2021, less than 2 percent of musicians in orchestras are black and 4 percent of conductors are black, as reported by the League of American Orchestras. Iris Collective, an orchestra in our beloved city, is working to change that.

“More than one-quarter of our rostered musicians are people of color, representing African American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Native American musicians,” said a representative for Iris Collective.

Iris Collective, formerly known as Iris Orchestra, has recently undergone a radical transformation and rebrand to be more inclusive of the community during its musical offerings, as opposed to just performing for audiences.

“Our goal is to make the community part of the art, allowing them to co-create beautiful musical experiences that shape our community’s culture,” said Rebecca Arendt, Executive Director for Iris Collective.

“It’s through these experiences that we can begin to break down barriers, really see each other and embrace the diversity we all represent that makes Memphis so unique.”

Adawagin Pratt, acclaimed classical pianist and activist.

One such experience is Iris Collective’s upcoming Black History Month finale, featuring Awadagin Pratt, a world-renowned African-American pianist, composer and activist who has played for two U.S. Presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

“We look to contract guest artists who embody the mission and vision of Iris Collective,” said a representative for Iris Collective.

“That means artists who are not only exemplary performers but pioneers in arts advocacy, community engagement and social impact work. We choose those who are willing to be part of the community while here – working with students, visiting schools, talks, panels, and more.”

And that is exactly what Pittsburgh native Pratt will do on his upcoming trip to Memphis.

Friday, March 1: Pratt will speak to a student musician group about “equity in the arts” at the University of Memphis, Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music.

Saturday, March 2, 7:30 p.m.: At the Germantown Performing Arts Center (GPAC), Pratt will be featured in concert. Memphians can expect an unforgettable evening featuring pieces by Bach, Schubert, and the remarkable African-American female composer Jessie Montgomery (who recently won a Grammy for “Rounds,” a song co-commission by Iris Collective, that will make its Memphis debut that night).

Additionally, students from Bartlett High School’s photography class will exhibit photography inspired by the pieces that will be presented that night, while the music is performed, exemplifyinghow the new Iris Collective collaborates with the community rather than forcing a certain artistic framework on them.

Sunday, March 3, 3 p.m.: A live screening of the documentary film “Awadagin Pratt: Black in America” will take place in Harris Hall at the University of Memphis, in conjunction with another performance by Pratt, this time accompanied by U of M students.

Additionally, a panel discussion, featuring Pratt; Ryan Jones, Interim Director of Education and Interpretation at the National Civil Rights Museum; Cremaine Booker, African-Americancellist and Iris Collective musician; and Renicea Bell, African-American violnist, Overton High and University of Memphis School of Music alumna. The discussion will be moderated by Iris Collective artistic and strategic advisor (and bassist), Mary Javian. This is a “Pay What You Wish” event, thanks to AutoZone.

The latter two events are open to the public. Tickets are available at iriscollective.org.

Featuring Pratt is in line with the overall mission of the non-profit, to create a space for African-Americans and Latinx classical musicians, and give them a place to grow, learn and serve.

According to its website, the Iris Artist Fellows Program is designed to address the under-representation of African-American and Latinx musicians in the classical genre and give them a platform to build their professional network, hone their musical skills and foster meaning community relationships through musical and teaching experiences.

The two current Iris Artist Fellows, Pedro Maia and Otavio Kavakama, both musicians from Brazil, can be found around town playing for nursing homes, helping students at Middle College learn music and performing quarterly at the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf.

The Iris Artist Fellows Program is now accepting applications for the 2024-2025 season. The deadline for violin, viola and cello players to apply is April 1, 2024.