Remembering André Watts, the Renowned Black Classical Pianist Handpicked by Leonard Bernstein

ByQuyen Anne

Jul 20, 2023

Charismatic and dazzlingly photogenic, he was both a brilliant musician and an entertaining showman

André Watts, who has died aged 77, was one of the few pianists of colour to make a career on the international classical music circuit; as a teenager he was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to appear in a televised concert and three weeks later received a thunderous standing ovation when the conductor selected him to stand in for an ailing Glenn Gould.

The charismatic and dazzlingly photogenic Watts was both a brilliant musician and an entertaining showman. His Rachmaninov cadenzas set pulses rising; his Beethoven was charged with electricity; and his muscles bulged and rippled in Liszt.

Critics, however, were often divided, with the crueller ones comparing his flamboyance on stage with Liberace and Chico Marx. Others called him one of the six greatest pianists in the world, “which is equally ridiculous,” Watts said.

Writing in Gramophone magazine, Bryce Morrison noted, “You are overwhelmingly aware of a pianist whose personality leaps across the footlights,” adding: “Watts can make even his finest colleagues sound staid and conformist in comparison … [he] was born for standing ovations and the creation of a bittersweet envy among lesser mortals.”

Watts’s appearances in Britain were remarkable if infrequent occasions. He made his European debut in 1966 with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in Liszt’s mighty E flat Piano Concerto conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt; three years later his account of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with the LSO and David Oistrakh left critics gasping for superlatives, including a Daily Telegraph reviewer who described the performance as “immensely exhilarating”.

André Watts, pictured in 1980, was known for bending so low over the keys his nose almost touched the piano
André Watts with his pianist mother (centre), signing autographs in Toronto, 1967 CREDIT: Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

He returned to Brahms for his Proms debut in 1972 with the New Philharmonia Orchestra under John Pritchard. There were two more Proms: a lively and fluent rendition of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto in 1987 and a sensitive and unaffected account of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in 2002.

During his career Watts amassed an amusing collection of piano tales: Athens was where middle C stuck on the piano; Madrid was where he was given a Bechstein instead of a Baldwin instrument; and Rotterdam was where the piano had to be nailed to the floor to stop it rolling off the platform.

Anyone who wanted sympathy when their violins or cellos misbehaved were given short shrift. “Hey, buddy, you’re complaining about your instrument when I’ve never even laid eyes on this monster in front of me,” he told David Dubal on his radio show, Reflections from the Keyboard. When first meeting a piano, Watts would gaze at it calmly for a long moment as a way of saying hello, wondering: “Will I be friends with the instrument or will I spoil a whole evening fighting with it?”

Orchestral players were treated in a similar manner. On one occasion he was rehearsing with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra when the temperature reached two degrees hotter than permitted in the union contract and the players downed their instruments. “I’m sitting there thinking, well, I don’t want to die of heat stroke either, but come on,” he said.

Performing Mozart at the Lincoln Centre in New York, 2002
André Watts, pictured in 1980, was known for bending so low over the keys his nose almost touched the piano CREDIT: alamy

Haunted by superstition, he filled his jacket pockets with talismans, including a cross on a chain, a carved wooden cologne bottle and a gold medallion from his mother, inscribed with the words “Even this shall pass”, from a poem by the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Tilton. His talismans were dumped, however, after failing to prevent a poor performance in Helsinki, brought on by hepatitis.

Watts’s repertoire remained largely conservative, ranging from Haydn to Debussy with only an occasional venture towards Aaron Copland. One hapless composer was given short shrift after writing a piece for him that involved reaching inside the piano to pluck a string. “If you want to f— around in the strings, that’s just being another percussion player,” the pianist snorted. “That’s not for me.”

André Michael Watts was born in the German city of Nuremberg on June 20 1946, the son of Herman Watts, an African-American US army sergeant, and his pianist wife Maria Gusmits, a blonde Hungarian; his earliest memories were of her playing elegant Strauss waltzes on an elegant Blüthner piano.

His father’s work took them around postwar Europe, with young André first playing the violin before settling on the piano. His mother inspired him to practise with tales of her compatriot Franz Liszt, whose works he later performed with panache.

When he was eight, the family settled in Philadelphia, and a couple of years later he was among 40 youngsters who auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s children’s series. He made a wrong entry, but impressed the conductor Samuel Antek by his ability to rectify the mistake, and was selected for the concert, receiving $25 for his sparkling performance of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major. “André is a piano prodigy of whom Philadelphia may well be proud,” declared the Philadelphia Inquirer.

With conductor Zubin Mehta during a rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Avery Fisher Hall, New York
Performing Mozart at the Lincoln Centre in New York, 2002 CREDIT: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

He attended a regular school and took piano lessons at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, which he picked out of the Yellow Pages. His parents divorced when he was 15 and he lived in West Philadelphia with his mother, who scraped a living working in an art gallery. The piano on which he practised was missing 26 strings and gangs roamed the neighbourhood. “Oh sure, I got beaten up all the time,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “It happened to everybody.”

Having won all the suitable competitions in Philadelphia, he took himself to an audition at Carnegie Hall, New York, but was not selected. “That was the low point,” he recalled. After learning that Bernstein was holding auditions in the city, he applied, playing first for Bernstein’s secretary, and then for the conductor himself.

That led to the 16-year-old’s appearance in a nationally televised Young People’s Concert. Twenty days later, Bernstein called on him to replace Gould in a New York Philharmonic concert at Lincoln Center. The announcement of an unknown understudy was met with an audible groan from the audience, but Watts’s thrilling account of Liszt’s E-flat Concerto led to wild cheers and a contract with Columbia Records.

Maestro Zubin Mehta with arms outstretched as he conducts the Australian World Orchestra.
With conductor Zubin Mehta during a rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Avery Fisher Hall, New York CREDIT: Alamy

As a teenager, he hunched over the piano with his nose so close to the keys that he was in danger of hitting the notes. Other mannerisms included stamping his foot and making faces. About five years into his career he sought instruction with Leon Fleisher, who worked with him on tone production.

By the late 1960s Watts was giving more than 100 concerts a year, including a 1967 world tour for the US State Department and a visit to Russia in 1973. On one occasion he returned to his birthplace, Nuremberg, but pulled out of the concert because he was not permitted a cigar. What irked him most was that it was a candlelit concert. “All somebody had to do was knock over one of those candelabra jobs and, man, the whole place would burn down…. And they’re worried about me?” he said with incredulity.

For the past 20 years he suffered ill health and in 2004 had surgery for a ruptured disc. Four years ago he cancelled several performances after surgery for a nerve injury in his left hand. Determined to continue playing, he made a right-handed arrangement of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, though the pandemic prevented him from giving a public performance.

Watts was nominated for a Grammy Award on five occasions, winning as best new classical artist in 1964. In 2011 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. He married Joan (née Brand), a concert organiser from Indianapolis in 1995. She survives him.

André Watts, born June 20 1946, died July 12 2023

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