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André Watts Had More Than Piano Lessons

November 10, 2014

André Watts learned early on the importance of fortitude.

The German-born, Philadelphia-raised pianist had learned the Haydn D-major Concerto so he could compete to perform in the Orchestra’s Children’s Concerts. A prodigy he may have been, but he was still a nine-year-old kid. “I didn’t know anything about the illustrious history of The Philadelphia Orchestra or the reputation connected to it. I was doing what my mother and teacher told me to do,” he said.

At the audition at the Academy of Music Watts began playing. His teacher, Doris Bawden, played the orchestral part on a second piano across from him. After finishing the exposition he began humming and daydreaming. Aghast, he realized that instead of moving into the development, he was playing the opening of the piece again. “Doris looked stricken. Somehow I figured out how many bars I had played and I jumped to the right place,” he said.

Ten-year-old André Watts at his student concert debut in 1957. Photo by Adrian Siegel Collection/The Philadelphia Orchestra Archives

So much for winning the Competition. As he walked out the door with his teacher, he was called back by Samuel Antek, the conductor of the Children’s Concerts, who told him he had won. 

Antek told Bawden, “We picked him because he played well and he didn’t burst into tears and stop playing. So many of the children do that when they make a mistake.”

It was a great lesson for the budding virtuoso: “Don’t stop, just keep going. There’s some reward in keeping going.”

He kept going.

When he was 14 Watts auditioned and won the Orchestra’s Junior Student Competition and when he was 17 he was invited to perform on a Pension Fund Concert. He’s played in the great concerts halls across the globe alongside the world’s greatest musicians. He has recorded extensively and is a much-honored artist. At 26 Watts was the youngest person ever to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale. He was the recipient of the 1988 Avery Fisher Prize, and in 2011 he received a National Medal of Arts from President Obama.

He has also been a constant performing presence with the hometown Philadelphia Orchestra. The relationship continues when he performs Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto November 13, 14, and 15.

Jakub Hrůša, music director of the Prague Philharmonia, makes his Philadelphia Orchestra debut on these concerts. The program includes Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony and Janáček’s Jealousy. The latter piece is part of the Orchestra’s 40/40 Project, in which the ensemble is performing 40 great compositions that have not been presented on Philadelphia subscription concerts in at least the last 40 years.

In a recent phone interview from his home in Bloomington, Indiana, where he has been the Jack I. and Dora B. Hamlin Endowed Chair in Music at Indiana University since 2004, Watts reminisced about his career. Chuckles accompanied some of the lighter moments he recalled from his more than 50 years at the keyboard, including one time when he wasn’t able to draw on the “just keep going” advice he learned as a youngster.

Watts was performing during the 1970s in a concert led by Eugene Ormandy, who had become a close friend over the years. He was inaugurating a new piano, performing a piece by Liszt, at the Orchestra’s summer home at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Watts said the piano played beautifully at rehearsal. But during the concert the right side of the lyre, the post attached to the pedal, began to move away from him. In the midst of the cadenza he calmly hooked his left foot behind the lyre to pull it back toward him. Don’t stop. Just keep going, right? With the maneuver the lyre fell off.

 “Gene [Ormandy] wasn’t looking at me and said, ‘What?’”

“I don’t have a pedal,” Watts replied to the maestro.

“Can’t you finish anyway?”

“No.”

The concert was halted, the broken piano was rolled off, an old piano was rolled on, and Watts and the Orchestra picked up where they left off.

That was a minor hitch in a career that was launched in storybook fashion. At 16 Leonard Bernstein chose him to make his debut with the New York Philharmonic in the Young People’s Concerts, broadcast nationwide on CBS-TV. Two weeks later, in January of 1963, Bernstein asked him to substitute at the last minute for the ailing Glenn Gould in performances of Liszt’s E-flat Concerto, again with the Philharmonic.

“The music onstage was very exciting. To the extent I could be at 16, I was part of the creative process of the moment, which was a very big deal,” he said.

Bernstein left a mark on Watts in other ways as well.

The Sunday night after Watts substituted for Gould, Watts and Bernstein participated in a recording session. During the session, Bernstein was so into the music he began singing at the top of his lungs, forgetting that the tapes were rolling, ruining the take.

“He’s such a professional, so committed to such a degree that he can forget the external obligations,” Watts thought at the time.

“It was an enormous experience of genuine immersion in doing music from the inside out rather than the outside in. It was such a spontaneous, uncontrolled desire to bring it out,” he said. “I always want to make music in a not-rote fashion like that.”

André Watts. Photo by Steven J. Sherman

There’s no doubt that Watts’s upcoming performances with The Philadelphia Orchestra, which promise to be some of the most popular concerts of the season, will be anything but rote. After Philadelphia, he continues teaching and performing because that’s what Watts does: he keeps going.