Andre Watts, iconic piano pioneer, dies at 77

Andre Watts, a pianist whose powerful technique and magnetic charm astounded audiences and made him one of the first black stars in classical music, died Wednesday at his home in Bloomington, Indiana at the age of 77.

His wife, Joan Brand-Watts, said the cause was prostate cancer.

Mr. Watts was an old-world virtuoso—his idol was the composer and showman Franz Liszt—with a knack for electricity and passion. Sometimes he grunted, stomped his feet and shook his head while playing, and some critics have criticized him for excessiveness. But his charisma and artistic abilities were undisputed, which helped propel him to the highest concert halls in the world.

“My greatest satisfaction is performing,” Watts told The New York Times in 1971, when he was 25. Performing is my way of being a part of humanity – sharing.”

He added, “There’s just something beautiful, about having an entire audience hanging on one note.”

Mr. Watts, whose father was black and whose mother was white, was a rarity in a field where musicians of color had long been underrepresented. While he preferred not to talk about race, he was celebrated as a pioneer who defied stereotypes about classical music and helped open doors for aspiring artists of color.

His arrival in the spotlight was auspicious. In 1963, at the age of 16, he won an audition to appear with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the maestro’s nationally broadcast Youth Concert Series.

Mr. Bernstein was extravagant when introduced Young pianist for the crowd at the Philharmonic Hall. “He sat down at the piano and tore the opening bars of Liszt’s concerto in such a way that we simply turned,” said Mr. Bernstein, recounting the young pianist’s audition.

Mr. Watts was then living in relative obscurity in Philadelphia, practicing on a battered piano with 26 strings missing. But he emerged from his performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as a bona fide star.

Two weeks later, Mr. Bernstein invited him to his official debut at the Philharmonic, taking the place of eminent pianist Glenn Gould. Later, he credited Mr. Bernstein with giving him a career “out of thin air.”

“It was like being God Almighty at the age of 16,” he told The Times.

André Watts was born on June 20, 1946, in Nuremberg, Germany, the son of Hermann Watts, a non-commissioned officer stationed abroad for the US Army, and Maria (Josmets) Watts, an amateur pianist from Hungary.

His mother, who was fond of playing Strauss waltzes on the family Bluthener piano, encouraged André’s musical studies, and when he was 6 years old, he took up the piano after a flirtation with the violin.

“I loved the sound,” he recalled in 1993. TV appearances. “I’d hit the pedal down for pages and pages of music and let that mushroom sound go.”

When he was eight years old, the family moved to the United States for his father’s business, eventually settling in Philadelphia. But his parents’ relationship soured, and they divorced when he was thirteen. He rarely saw his father in the following decades.

His mother, who worked as an art gallery receptionist to help pay for piano lessons, became a dominant influence. When he was young, she acted as a teacher, coach, and principal, enforcing a strict exercise regimen.

Andre struggled to fit into the school, fighting with teachers and classmates (he taught himself judo to deter bullies). He recalled in interviews that he sometimes felt isolated, because he was neither black nor white.

When he went to Florida as a teenager to perform, his manager, citing the state’s history of discrimination against interracial couples, warned that he might be viewed suspiciously.

But his mother told him he shouldn’t blame racism for his problems. “If someone is not nice to you,” Mr. Watts recalls her saying when he was interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor in 1982, “It doesn’t have to be automatically because of your color.”

“These kinds of advice taught me that when I’m in a complicated personal situation, I don’t have to conclude that it’s a racist thing,” he said. “The finer things about a personal exchange are, first of all, that can’t be proven to be racist anyway. So it’s a waste of time.”

He later credited Mr. Bernstein with helping him gain acceptance in the classical music industry, which had long been seen as dominated by whites and wealthy people. Introducing Mr. Watts at the Youth Gala, Mr. Bernstein described his international heritage and said, “I love this kind of story.”

In 1964, a year after his debut with Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Watts won a Grammy Award for Most Promising New Classical Recording Artist. Despite his early success, he has tried to stay grounded, adopting a motto, “Even that will go away,” Taken from a poem by the nineteenth century poet, Theodore Tilton. (His mother’s phrase was engraved on a gold medal he wore around his neck.)

He graduated in 1972 from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he studied with teacher and performer Leon Fleischer. He was already a regular on the world concert circuit by the time he graduated, playing the Liszt concertos for which he is best known, as well as works by Chopin, Franck, Saint-Saëns, and others, before selling out all the crowds in Boston, Los Angeles. Angeles, London and other places.

Mr. Watts garnered mixed reviews early in his career; Critics said that while he has flair and confidence, he can get carried away at times. But they agreed that he had a special ability to communicate from a keyboard.

It cannot be taught, wrote Harold C., “this mysterious transference from one stage to another, and Mr. Watts has had it to a very great extent.”

While Mr. Watts thrived on stage, recording was much more difficult; He said he tends to rave without an audience. At times, he struggled financially and administratively, including in 1992, when a New York state appeals court ordered him to pay nearly $300,000 in disputed commissions to Columbia Artists Management.

But he has maintained his popularity, performing at state dinners at the White House, appearing frequently on television and becoming one of classical music’s most bankable stars. His success brought new luxuries and curiosities. He grew fond of Montecristo cigars, fine wines, and caviar, and began studying Zen Buddhism.

In 1987, Mr. Watts appeared on an episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” about learning from mistakes.

On the programme, he said, “When I’m feeling sad, going to the piano and playing nicely and listening to the sounds slowly makes everything sound right.”

His collaborators described him as a musician of supernatural talent who was always striving to improve. Conductor Robert Spano said Mr. Watts had never performed a piece in the same way twice, intent on finding a new meaning each time.

“Every night was a new adventure,” said Mr. Spano. “He radiated love for people and for music, and that was unmistakable. That is why he was so beloved as a performer, because of the generosity of making his music.”

He was also a role model for many black musicians. Conductor Thomas Wilkins, a classmate of Mr. Watts at Indiana University, where Mr. Watts has taught since 2004, mentions him as a devoted teacher who was eager “to convey this ferocity about trying to get better.”

“When we were on stage together there was an unspoken acknowledgment that we were in a world that many people thought we should not be,” said Mr. Wilkins, who is Black. “It was an affirmation.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Watts is survived by his stepson, William Dalton. stepdaughter Amanda Reese; And seven unmarried children.

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Mr. Watts, who was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer in 2016, was planning a feat: he would play Ravel’s Piano Concerto for left in a version he’d reworked for right. His hand (his left was recovering from a nerve injury). While practicing on his twin Yamaha pianos, he got daily inspiration from a one-legged starling that appeared outside his home in Bloomington.

In the end, Mr. Watts was unable to perform the concerto due to health problems and the epidemic. He mostly stopped playing the piano after concerts were canceled, rather than spending time with students.

Music has supported him throughout his life, his wife said, starting with a difficult childhood and through his health struggles.

“The music was the way he suffered and how he survived,” she said. “When he was actually playing, he was happy. It really lifted his spirit.”

He described music as a sacred space in which he felt he could breathe and thrive.

“Your relationship with your music is the most important thing you have, and it is, in a special and sacred sense, something you need to protect,” he said before a concert in Baltimore in 2012. Life is very, very strong, very powerful. So you need to protect your special relationship with your music.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.