Pianist André Watts can relax when he comes to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to play tonight with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Sunday at the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival. It’s not because he’ll perform with old friends or in repertoire that he’s familiar with, it’s because he knows he’ll get a good piano to play on.
“On the Northeast coast and the West Coast, I never play local pianos,” he said. “A technician loans me a piano to play.”
That’s a tremendous relief to Watts, who said that in a fabled career that has spanned more than 40 years, he’s played on more bad pianos than good ones.
“In my contract, I ask for a 9-foot grand that is in tune and in good condition,” he said. “But no one pays any attention.”
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Tonight 8 p.m. — Philadelphia Orchestra
Sunday 2:15 p.m. — Saratoga Chamber Music Festival
HOW MUCH: $72.50–$31, $18 lawn (today); $41.50–$36.50 (Sunday)
MORE INFO: 584-3330 or visit www.spac.org
Sometimes, pianos have broken or silent keys or are out of tune, but when he points these things out, managers or conductors react with disbelief and tell him that someone else just played it last week and it was fine or that they had no idea. Watts doesn’t buy it.
“You pay me good money and I can manage to make an OK concert,” he said. “They need only to buy a piano and get a good technician. But people don’t care. And it’s getting worse.”
Every piano is different, and shipping his own piano would be cost-prohibitive, so he’s come to accept what he can’t change. But early in his career, it was much worse, he said.
Watts had debuted as a youngster with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but he became a national celebrity at 16 when conductor Leonard Bernstein chose him to debut with the New York Philharmonic in its nationally televised Young People’s Concerts. Two weeks later, Watts replaced an ailing Glenn Gould in several performances of Liszt’s E-flat Concerto with the orchestra.
His career quickly spiraled upward and with it came the demons of stage fright.
“I had so many talismans and prayed to the gods that I did everything but sacrifice animals in the dressing room,” Watts said.
A turning point came during his 20s at a concert in Helsinki. He’d done all his usual rituals but he still played badly. That did it, he said.
“I threw everything away,” Watts said. “The rituals had been more a matter of self-preservation.”
Yet he still got nervous before concerts. What made him even edgier, besides a bad piano, was if he couldn’t get a nap or the rehearsal or concert times were changed. But he realized that things happen at concerts and he had to accept that he couldn’t manage a performance day without some tension.
His mantra became: Get nervous, go play. His routine backstage also changed and today remains the same.
“I sit quietly in a chair and try to focus and pay attention to my breathing,” he said. “As long as I can breathe, I’m OK.”
In recent years, Watts has been balancing his performances and recordings with teaching assignments. Nine years ago after having received numerous honorary degrees, Watts became artist-in-residence at the University of Maryland. In 2004, he joined the piano faculty at Indiana University.
“I’ve always given two or three master classes each year wherever I’ve gone,” he said, adding that last year for the first time he took on seven students.
To make sure he gives them enough time, he said, he spends more time on the campus, sandwiching lessons into a schedule that includes up to 70 concerts nationally, numerous visits to international music festivals this summer, and a planned fall recital tour of Japan. And that brings up another favorite peeve: airport security.
“It’s impossible,” he said. “What makes a tour bearable is that I can do some serious driving. That’s always preferable to flying.”
He may even drive to SPAC from his home in New Jersey.
Bad luck concerto
Tonight, he’ll play Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Last year he was scheduled to open the Philadelphia Orchestra’s season with the Grieg, but an injury at the last minute forced him to cancel. The summer before that he was also supposed to play it but substituted Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Tonight, he’ll get another chance to play what conductor Charles Dutoit now calls “a bad luck concerto.”
“I’m always happy to be invited back and I like Dutoit a lot. He said I owed him a Grieg,” Watts said laughing, adding that he himself was the one to suggest he try to play it again. It will be only the second time in his career he’s played it. Although the piece is considered a staple and he usually has about 15 concertos at his fingertips each year, somehow that one slipped through, he said. He performed the Grieg for the first time in October 2007.
His performance on the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival of Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” is of a piece that is an old favorite and one he’s often played.