Thursday, May 26, 2016

Orange County Register: Pianist André Watts, who performs in Costa Mesa this week, looks back on a storied career

Conductor Leonard Bernstein has a smile and a pat for 16-year-old pianist Andre Watts after the youth's performance of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic, Jan. 31, 1963. (AP Photo)

The Orange County Register


The great American pianist André Watts, who turns 70 in June, had no idea that Sony planned to release a commemorative boxed set of his recordings. Sony hadn’t contacted him. Sony hadn’t even sent him an advance copy. A musician friend in Germany was the first to mention the set, and then Watts’ manager, after a reporter’s query, got wind of it.
“And he Googled it, and that’s the first I’ve seen of this boxed set,” Watts says, on the phone the other day from his home in Bloomington, Indiana. Due early next month, the set features the 12 recordings he made for Columbia dating back to 1963, all remastered, all slipped into tiny versions of their original jacket covers.
“You can’t read the notes, it’s too small, but the covers are fun,” Watts says of original jacket cover releases in general. He still didn’t have his own set in hand. Nor has he heard any of the recordings in a long time. Does he have a favorite?
“I like different recordings for different reasons,” he answers. “I have sentimental memories for doing the Brahms (second) concerto, just because I was young and it was such a big deal and doing it with (Leonard) Bernstein, it was great work.”
He remembers others. “Not the recording itself, but the performances that preceded the Tchaikovsky concerto (again with Bernstein) were I think really great performances. I don’t think that the recording measures up to that.
“There’s an old Beethoven album that has, like, variations and maybe ‘Für Elise’ and things like that on it, and I like that because there’s no splices in movements. I mean the sonata (Op. 10, No. 3) is not all one take, but every movement of the sonata is one take.”
But, ever humble, he’s not willing to say any of them are good, or a favorite. “I wouldn’t really know,” he says. Perhaps he’ll change his mind when, and if, he sits down to listen to the set.
A frequent visitor here, Watts, friendly, thoughtful, deep-voiced, is in town this week for three performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony. He hasn’t any musical plans to mark his milestone but his wife is taking him to Paris for a few days and he’ll have dinner at L’Arpège, as a “birthday treat.”
Watts was born in Nuremberg, Germany, on June 20, 1946, his mother a Hungarian and his father an African-American soldier. His mother was his first piano teacher and he prospered on the instrument early.
His big break made him instantly famous. He won an audition and then appeared with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in a Young People’s Concert, nationally broadcast in prime time in January, 1963. Watts was 16. A couple of weeks later, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic asked Watts to step in on two days notice for an indisposed Glenn Gould. (He remembers telling them that he’d have to ask his mom if it was OK.) On both occasions, he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Columbia recorded Watts, Bernstein and the Philharmonic in the same piece two days after the performances and the recording is included in the Sony set.
Watts remembers those events vividly. Race played a factor in his overnight celebrity, he says, and he remembers Bernstein, a deeply political being, playing it up on the television broadcast, introducing the young pianist as “looking like a Persian prince” and all but openly extolling the virtues of mixed race marriages.
“Look, he was a very smart man, he thought this through,” Watts says of Bernstein’s speech. “I’m sure he discussed it, ‘Can I say this? Can I not say this? How far can I go?’ All that. So to that degree, of course race was a factor.”
But there were other factors as well. Watts recalls that there was a newspaper strike when he substituted for Gould.
“So because of that, big periodicals, Life, Newsweek, Ebony, all these magazines, sent people. There was a giant spread in Life and all that. That was the kind of publicity you would not have gotten if there hadn’t been a newspaper strike.”
Still, it was the conductor’s advocacy that probably meant most.
“I always say Bernstein basically handed me a career on a plate and said, ‘Here, kid, you want this, you can have it, it’s yours,’” Watts says.
He took it and ran with it, but carefully. As his career took off – “second only to Cliburn as a box office attraction,” says the American Grove – he signed up to study with the celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and worked with him off and on from 1963-74. The two remain friends still.
These days, in addition to a busy solo career, Watts teaches at Indiana University’s School of Music in Bloomington and loves it. His model is Fleisher.

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