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Thu, 06.20.1946

Andre Watts, Classical Pianist born

Andre Watts

Andre Watts was born on this date in 1946. He is a Black concert pianist and one of the first American black concert pianists to achieve international superstardom.

He was born in Nuremberg, Germany, the son of a Black career soldier, Sergeant Herman Watts, and a white-Hungarian mother, Maria Alexandra Gusmits. Young Watts lived in Europe, mostly near army posts, until age eight. Watts began studying the violin at age four. By the time he was six, he made it known that his preference was for the piano, so his mother, a pianist herself, gave him his first lessons.  A change in his father's military assignment caused the family to move to the United States and settle in Philadelphia.

At the time, he loved to play but hated to practice. When his habit persisted, his mother relayed stories of her countryman, pianist, and composer Franz Liszt, emphasizing that he practiced faithfully.  Liszt soon became Watt’s hero and even adopted Liszt's bravura playing style. The family unit remained intact until 1962, when Herman and Maria were divorced. Watts remained with his mother, whom he credits with considerable influence in his development.  She worked to support herself and young Andre, first as a secretary and later as a receptionist in an art gallery.

In Philadelphia, Watts went first to a Quaker school, then to a parochial one, then to Lincoln Preparatory School. At age ten, he performed the Felix Mendelssohn G minor Concerto with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, and at 14, Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations, again with the Philadelphia Orchestra. When Watts was 16, he auditioned at Carnegie Recital Hall. The group applauded his audition performance, moving him to the finals, where things went equally well. Watts played Liszt's E-flat Concerto at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. A Young People's Concert, the program was taped and shown on CBS television on January 15, 1963. Bernstein introduced the young pianist to the national audience.

He was also enrolled at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, where he studied with Genia Robinor, Doris Bawden, and Clement Petrillo, graduating in June 1963. Watts entered his first competition at age nine, competing with 40 other gifted youngsters for an opportunity to appear in one of the Philadelphia Orchestra's Children's Concerts. Watts won the competition and launched his career, performing a Franz Joseph Haydn piano concerto.

Less than three weeks later, Bernstein asked Watts to substitute for an ailing Glenn Gould, the scheduled soloist for the New York Philharmonics regular subscription concert on January 1, 1963. Again, Watts performed the Liszt E flat concert, which made international headlines. Columbia recorded an LP titled “The Exciting Debut of Andre Watts.” His singing tone stayed with him in every mood of his varied approach, and when he had sounded his final cadenza, the whole orchestra stood with the audience to applaud him. Even the Philharmonic fiddlers put down their bows and gustily clapped hands. Following his debut, Watt’s mother and manager restricted him to six concerts in the first year; the next 12 concerts; the next 15 concerts, and so on. In addition, success would not isolate him from his classmates.

Following high school graduation, Watts began to study part-time for a bachelor of music degree at Peabody Institute in Baltimore. He graduated in 1972. The following year, Watts appeared at New York City's Lewisohn Stadium with Seiji Ozawa and the New York Philharmonic, performing Camille Saint-Saens Concert No. 2 in G minor. In September 1963, he again performed the Liszt concerto at the Hollywood Bowl. He opened the 1964--65 National Symphony Orchestra's season in Washington, D.C., performing the Saint-Saens concerto. He returned to New York in January 1965 to perform Chopin's Concerto No. 2 in F minor with the Philharmonic. Watts made his European debut in a London performance with the London Symphony Orchestra in June 1966.

He celebrated his twenty-first birthday by signing a long-term exclusive contract with CBS Records. By 1969, he was on a full-scale concert schedule, booked three seasons in advance. Gradually the number of concerts increased, reaching 150 by the mid-1970s. By then, Watts was performing about eight months out of the year. In the late 1970s, he fulfilled roughly 100 dates per year, divided between concert appearances and solo recitals. At 30, he celebrated his tenth consecutive appearance in Lincoln Center's Great Performance Series at Avery Fischer Hall in 1976.

Since he was the first classical artist to make his initial public impact through television, the producers believed he should be the first solo recital televised live from Lincoln Center. His PBS Sunday afternoon telecast in 1976 was the first solo recital presented on Live from Lincoln Center and the first full-length recital aired nationally in prime time. In June and July 1974, he made a five-week tour of Japan and made summer appearances at the Hollywood Bowl, Ambler, Ravinia, and Concord festivals. Between recitals and orchestral appearances throughout the United States, he made two European tours during 1975--76 seasons.

Unlike many other protégés, Watts lived up to his early promise and was a greater sensation as time moved on. In 1964, the National Academy of Recording Artists and Sciences presented Watts with a Grammy Award, and in February 1973, he was selected as Musical America's Musician of the Month. Other honors and awards include honorary doctorates from Albright College and Yale University, the Order of Zaire from that African country, and a University of the Arts Medal from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

By the mid-1970s, Watts gave 150 concerts, recitals, and chamber performances per season, performing about eight months out of the year. In 1976, at age thirty, he celebrated his tenth consecutive appearance in the Lincoln Center Great Performers Series at Avery Fisher Hall. The PBS Sunday afternoon telecast was the first solo recital presented on Live from Lincoln Center and the first full-length recital aired nationally in prime time.

In 2002, Watts suffered a subdural hematoma and underwent emergency surgery.  In 2004, he also had surgery for a ruptured disc which was affecting the use of his left hand. He continued performing regularly after recovering from the surgeries.  In 2004 Watts joined the faculty at Indiana University, holding the Jack I. and Dora B. Hamlin Endowed Chair in Music.  In 2019, he underwent surgery for a nerve injury to his left hand resulting in the cancellation of several performances. He has reworked the Ravel Concerto for Left Hand to perform with his right hand and will perform the work with the Detroit and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras.

Watts remains one of the world's "greatest in demand" pianists, both as a recitalist and concert soloist. He continues to perform on the world's most important concert stages and with the world's most celebrated orchestras and conductors.

To Become a Musician or Singer


The Negro Almanac
A Reference Work on the Afro-American,
New York 1976.

"Watt’s Incidental Achievement."
Washington Post,
April 16, 1993.

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