When it comes to musical virtuosos, there are no Olympics, no worldwide competition for win, place and show. Techniques and interpretations must be compared through recordings. But to savor—and evaluate—the great triumphs, the music lover just has to be there. And judging from those who have, a 28-year-old American pianist, André Watts, has become a star of supernova magnitude.
Listen, for instance, to the New York Times’ usually sober-sided music critic Harold C. Schonberg: “Pull out all the adjectives, men! The performance was: electrifying, sensational, daring, colorful, imaginative, powerful. I not only never heard Liszt’s Todtentanz played better. I cannot even imagine it played better.” Watts has been getting that kind of review recently wherever he plays—London, Paris, Berlin, Milan, Athens, Tehran. Last month he played at Philadelphia’s Robin Hood Dell. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported: “A whistling, stomping crowd of more than 33,000—largest of the season—almost went into an emotional riot as Watts cracked off the last whiplash notes…Watts is one of the world’s top pianists, at the very top of his own generation.”
True, Philadelphia is a special place for Watts. The son of a black army sergeant stationed in West Germany and a blond Hungarian mother, Watts was brought to West Philadelphia when he was 8, shortly before his father and mother divorced. Young André loved music. He played the violin at 4 but switched to the piano at 6 after hearing his mother play Strauss waltzes.
West Philadelphia was tough; their livelihood was precarious, and practicing on a rickety piano which had 26 missing strings was an artistic nightmare. “I can’t imagine that I would be a pianist today if my mother hadn’t pushed,” André admits. When street-fights among his Irish and Italian neighbors broke out, André’s sympathies went to a boy named Pasquale Dougherty: “He really got it both ways.”
Watts traveled the wunderkind route: at 9, he won out over 40 contestants to play Haydn in a children’s concert; at 10, he performed Mendelssohn with the Philadelphia Orchestra; at 16, he auditioned for Leonard Bernstein, who confessed he “flipped,” and booked him for a CBS-TV performance. But André’s real debut came a few weeks later when Bernstein substituted him for ailing Glenn Gould at a regular New York Philharmonic concert. The event was historic, though André scarcely grasped what was happening: “When I finished playing, I noticed that everybody was standing up, and I thought, ‘Well, you got through that one.’ ”
In a sense, he is a throwback to the bravura virtuoso performers of the 19th century. He long ago opted for Franz Liszt over the more modern composer Bartok—”Both are Hungarians,” he points out. “But Liszt had chutzpah. He could hold people.”
Basically his tastes are grounded in the classics. “Rock doesn’t interest me,” he admits. “I’m not into jazz. I want to go further in the direction I’m going. Part of my growth, I think, has been walking on stage and allowing myself to gamble, allowing the music to flower.”
With 80 concerts a year (at top fees of $6,000-and-up), Watts practices six hours a day in his high-ceilinged, West Side Manhattan bachelor apartment. He has developed a gourmet appreciation of fine food, smokes ten Havana cigars a day—when he can get them—dates occasionally, and relaxes with geometric puzzles and chess.
Often billed as a black artist, he prefers to ignore race (Ebony found him “naive”), but he is pleased when young blacks attend his concerts. “The hope is that they come to me first for racial reasons, but then they say, ‘Hey, that’s cool,’ and start going to other concerts.
“I can’t imagine what I’d be but a pianist,” he confesses. “I dig a piano. It’s phenomenal.” But pre-concert nerves still get to him: “A few hours before the concert I get difficult. It’s nothing interesting; I just get panicked, a stupid kind of panic. It annoys me.
“But I think I’m growing,” he continues. “On one hand, I’m satisfied. On the other, I’m not. I work at it, and I go through my own hells privately and—well, privately says it all.”