BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Pianist André Watts, whose televised debut with the New York Philharmonic as a 16-year-old in 1963 launched an international career of more than a half-century, has died. He was 77.
Watts died Wednesday at his home in Bloomington of prostate cancer, his manager, Linda Marder, said Friday. Watts joined the faculty of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in 2004. He said in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Watts won a Philadelphia Orchestra student competition and debuted when he was 10 in a children’s concert on Jan. 12, 1957, performing the first movement of Haydn’s Concerto in D major.
He studied under Genia Robinor and made his New York Philharmonic debut in a Young People’s Concert led by music director Leonard Bernstein on Jan. 12, 1963, a program televised three days later on CBS.
“Now we come to a young man who is so remarkable that I am tempted to give him a tremendous buildup, but I’d almost rather not so that you might have the same unexpected shock of pleasure and wonderment that I had when I first heard him play,” Bernstein told the audience. “He was just another in a long procession of pianists who were auditioning for us one afternoon and out he came, a sensitive-faced 16-year-old boy from Philadelphia ... who sat down at the piano and tore into the opening bars of a Liszt concerto in such a way that we simply flipped.”
Bernstein conducted Watts and the orchestra in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
“What Mr. Watts had that was exceptional was a delicacy of attack that allowed the piano to sing,” Raymond Ericson wrote in The New York Times.
Watts so impressed Bernstein that the conductor chose him to replace an indisposed Glenn Gould and play the Liszt concerto twice at Philharmonic Hall a few weeks later. Within months, he had earned a recording contract and became among the most prominent pianists.
“When I’m feeling unhappy, going to the piano and just playing gently and listening to sounds makes everything slowly seem all right,” he said on a 1987 episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Born in Nuremberg, Germany, on June 20, 1946, to a Hungarian mother and a Black father who was in the U.S. Army, Watts moved with his family to Philadelphia.
“When I was young, I was in the peculiar position with my school chums of not being white and not being Black, either,” Watts told The Christian Science Monitor in 1982. “Somehow I didn’t fit in very well at all. My mom said two things, ‘If you really think that you have to play 125% to a white’s 100% for equal treatment, it’s too bad. But fighting will not alter it.’ And, ‘If someone is not nice to you, it doesn’t have to be automatically because of your color.’
“[That advice] taught me that when I’m in a complex personal situation, I don’t have to conclude it is a racial thing. Therefore, I think I have encountered fewer problems all along the way.”
In the late 1960s, Watts started studying at the Peabody Institute under Leon Fleisher while maintaining a full concert schedule.
In an oral history conducted for the school in 2003, Watts talked about the shift he went through going from concerts for large audiences to lessons with Fleisher in Baltimore.
“What was important, I think, was that he erased self doubt and insecurity by making you recognize you were building your musical knowledge. You were growing and that was to the good,” he said.
“He would never have said something like that, but when you brought him a Mozart sonata that you didn’t have the faintest clue how to play,” he continued, “he didn’t underline that part. He would just start teaching you the piece and having you listen, and then you figure out why, and what does it mean, and what should I go after, what should I try to do, what did he want, what did he mean, how can I get that across, and so forth and so on.”
Watts said Fleisher was visibly angry with him only a handful of times, including one session where he played a Mozart sonata “like a typewriter.”
Fleisher told him: “Well, fine. You know how to turn a phrase, you know how not to poke it in the eye at the end of the phrase and all that. Well good for you. So ... ? You didn’t play me anything. You didn’t make any music.”
Watts graduated from Peabody in 1972.
His career was interrupted on Nov. 14, 2002, when he was stricken by a subdural hematoma before a scheduled performance with the Pacific Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, California. He had surgery in Newport Beach.
Watts then had surgery in 2004 to repair a herniated disk that caused nerve damage in his left hand. He made the last of more than 40 Carnegie Hall appearances with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2017. He had been scheduled to appear at the New York Philharmonic this November to mark the centennial of “Young People’s Concerts.”
He was nominated for five Grammy Awards and won Most Promising New Classical Recording Artist in 1964 for the Liszt concerto with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. He was nominated for a 1995 Emmy Award for Outstanding Cultural Program and received a 2011 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal from then-President Barack Obama.
Watts is survived by his wife Joan Brand Watts, stepson William Dalton, stepdaughter Amanda Rees and seven step-grandchildren. There were no immediate funeral plans.
Additional reporting by The Baltimore Banner.