Pianist Andre Watts has been a mainstay on the international circuit for more than 50 years. Yet his storied career might not have been, had it not been for a newspaper strike.
“It was a quirk of fate,” said Watts, who will perform on Saturday with the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
He was 16 in the fall of 1962 when his teacher submitted his name to the Young People’s Concert committee, which oversaw the highly popular television program that Leonard Bernstein hosted as music director of the New York Philharmonic.
“I auditioned but Bernstein wasn’t even present at the preliminaries,” Watts said. “There were a lot of others auditioning. When I got to the finals, Bernstein was there.”
Watts and three young girls were chosen to play. Each of the girls played a movement from a Mozart piano concerto with the orchestra, each conducted by one of the assistant conductors.
“But Leonard Bernstein decided he wanted to conduct me in the Liszt concerto. The whole thing was 17 minutes long,” Watts said.
Albany Symphony Orchestra with Andre Watts
WHERE: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $85 - $30
MORE INFO: 694-3300, www.albanysymphony.com
He returned home to high school thinking that was that. Then, in January, he got a call from the Philharmonic asking him to substitute for an ailing Glenn Gould to play Liszt’s E-flat Concerto in the orchestra’s regular series of concerts.
While having an unknown teenager substitute for a famous artist was newsworthy, what made the timing of the concerts so momentous was that during the week he performed, a newspaper strike occurred.
“Luck and chance are powerful things. It’s a fact,” Watts said.
Had there not been a strike, his debut might have rated a few lines in a review, he said, but with the strike there were no critics from the dailies. But periodicals and magazines, such as Life, Time and Ebony, all sent their reporters.
“It became a big deal,” Watts said. “Columbia Records said they could record the performance. I would never have had that kind of coverage without the strike. It was humongous. It was basically like Bernstein held out a platter to me and asked if I wanted a career. It was like an overnight success.”
To maintain that extraordinary momentum, and to continue to play concerts, Watts said, it was decided he would do two years of high school in one year. He also began studying with celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher. By the time Watts was 19, Fleisher suggested that, since he was already taking lessons, why not get a college degree.
So one day a week, he would commute to Baltimore to take a full day of classes at Peabody Conservatory and a three-hour piano lesson. It was years later that he said he came to appreciate the care and time Fleisher had given him.
“He understood what a quandary it was for me to perform before so many people [as if he were the best] and then go back and have a lesson. It was a real dichotomy,” Watts said.
His career prospered over the decades with debuts with all the major international orchestras. This also included a performance with the ASO in 1995 as a benefit for Classical Action.
“He played Rachmaninoff’s second, and both Liszt concertos,” said conductor David Alan Miller. “It was all Watts and monumental.”
Watts has done recitals worldwide, made appearances at all the major music festivals, including the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, performed on television several times, including having his 1976 recital on Live from Lincoln Center being the first full length recital broadcast in television history. His extensive discography is on several labels, and he has performed for royalty and heads of government worldwide.
His honors include being the youngest at 26 to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University as well as several other colleges, the 1988 Avery Fisher Prize and being inducted into the Hollywood Bowl of Fame in 2006. In 2011, Watts received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.
With all this success, has his career changed much over the years?
“Well, it’s older,” Watts said, laughing. “It hasn’t changed so much because by chance, it started so suddenly and so large. I was spared a lot of the maneuvering and struggles in a public sense that many young pianists endure. I was positively naïve and really thought that if I played better and more beautifully, the career would go by itself. I had no unusual bumps in the road.”
During his 20s and 30s, he said, he played an enormous number of concerts, but now not so much because there are fewer venues and many orchestras have folded. He has added chamber music to his repertoire, although he still is mostly a recitalist and soloist. He often gives master classes and, since 2004, he’s been a professor at Indiana University and currently has five students.
“I always tell them that I understand the desire and ambition [to have a solo career], but it’s necessary to have the music first and the career second. They’re not the same,” he said.
Listening for details
As for his ASO performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, he’ll be listening for the orchestra’s first notes.
“Music is music, but it’s always interesting as to what I’ll hear. How will they play?,” he said. “It’s a positive curiosity. It’s all in the small details.”
Also on the program are Verdi’s Overture to “La Forza del Destino,” Dan Visconti’s “Black Bend,” and two pieces by Johann Strauss: “Emperor Waltz” and “Pleasure Train Polka.”