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André Watts is a concert pianist of great renown whose long and distinguished career already spans more than half a century. He is celebrated for his impeccable technique and profound musicality, displayed in his interpretations of the core piano repertoire, from Liszt and Chopin to Gershwin and MacDowell. Watts has an impressive discography to his name, having begun an exclusive long-term contract with Columbia Masterworks Records on his 21st birthday. In the 1980s and 90s he recorded for EMI Records. 2016 saw the release of SONY Classical’s Andre Watts – The Complete Columbia Album, of all the concerto repertoire Watts had completed during his contract with Columbia.
Watts was born on 20 June 1946 in Nuremberg, Germany, to a Hungarian mother and an African-American father. His father was a US army officer and the family lived in various parts of Europe in Watts’ early life, eventually relocating to the United States when André was eight years old. Watts proved to be extremely talented at the piano, showing promise from a young age, studying with such renowned teachers as Genia Robinor, Doris Bawden, and Clement Petrillo at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now part of the University of the Arts). At the age of nine he won a competition that gained him the opportunity to perform as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
He made his New York début aged 16, after auditioning to play in Leonard Bernstein’s legendary Young People’s Concerts. Bernstein is said to have ‘flipped’ when he first heard Watts play. His performance of the Liszt Piano Concerto No 1 in E-Flat with the New York Philharmonic, on 12 January 1963, was televised nationwide on CBS, catapulting Watts to fame. Over the next few years he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, at NYC’s Lewisohn Stadium with Seiji Ozawa and opened the 1964-5 season of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Meanwhile he was immersed in a part-time Bachelor of Music study at the Peabody Institute with Leon Fleischer, from which he graduated in 1972.
Watts made his European début with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1966 and the following year undertook a world tour run by the US State Department. In 1973 the US State Department arranged another tour for him, this time in the Soviet Union as a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
In 1988, the 25th anniversary of Watts’ New York début was celebrated, in the form of a live nationwide broadcast concert of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. This was the same year that he won the Avery Fischer Award, a prestigious monetary award given by the Lincoln Center to solo instrumentalists of outstanding distinction.
Watts has received many other well-deserved awards and honours: honorary doctorates from Yale University (1973) and Allbright College (1975), Distinguished Alumni Award from the Peabody Institute (1984), the National Medal of the Arts (2011), a place in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame (2013) and the Cincinnati MacDowell Society’s MacDowell Medal (2014).
Header Image by Steve J Sherman; Other image by David Bazemore