With its beautiful melodies and jaunty rhythms, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue sounds as if it must be a lot of fun to play.
"When I'm playing, I'm not thinking about having fun," says pianist Awadagin Pratt, who will perform the iconic American work with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday night at the Singletary Center for the Arts. "I'm thinking about communicating to the audience so that the audience enjoys it, and if I happen to enjoy it, that's a happy by-product. If it's only about me enjoying it, the audience might miss out."
Pratt will definitely be thinking about the touches he wants to put on the piece, which has its roots in the improvisational form of jazz.
"A friend of mine was a jazz pianist and a classical pianist," Pratt says. "He played the piece a lot, and he did a lot of improvisation in it. So when I first started approaching the piece, I was thinking about that.
"I was also thinking that Gershwin was really trying to immerse himself in classical music and wanted to write that kind of a piece. So I don't take too many ... maybe some small liberties here and there, but I basically address the piece as I would a classical piece."
Pratt will just have to make a short journey down the road to play here and participate in the Philharmonic's second Kicked Back Classics event, an extended concert preview Thursday night at the Downtown Arts Center.
He is the artist in residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
Thursday's educational session taps his talents as a teacher and a performing artist. "I like the idea of doing a relaxed concert with Beethoven and Brahms just as much as Gershwin," Pratt says. "I think one of the things that gets in the way of appreciation of classical music is the formality of the occasion. I think I have pretty decent communications skills."
That would be one of numerous skills for the man who earned degrees in piano, violin and conducting at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Pratt, 45, was the first student in the prestigious Baltimore school's history to earn degrees in three performance areas.
Pratt says he wasn't aiming to make history with the achievement.
"At the time, you're just doing it because it's what your brain can do," Pratt says. "The further distance from it, I suppose I appreciate it more.
"Conducting was really the first thing that I wanted to do. Obviously you're not going to take conducting lessons at 6, and then I really wanted to play the violin. I don't know why, but there it was. So, by the time I entered college, I didn't really know which instrument I preferred. ... There was a lot of pressure at various times to focus on one instrument, but I couldn't do it until I could make that decision. And when I made that decision, I stopped really practicing the violin."
It has been a distinguished career on the piano, including winning the prestigious Naumburg International Piano Competition in 1992.
Pratt says a big part of what led him to focus on piano was the available repertoire.
"The violin repertoire is pretty limited as far as the really great composers go," Pratt says. "The piano repertoire is tremendous, and it worked very well into pursuing conducting."
That has put many of the great works by the great masters under his fingertips. And he acknowledges that while he tries to approach it as the serious classical work Gershwin intended, there is a certain character and joy in it.
"It's a nice piece," Pratt says. "And yeah, it is fun to play."