BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Pianist André Watts, whose televised debut with the New York Philharmonic aged 16 in 1963 ushered in an international career spanning more than half a century, has died. He was 77.
Watts died of prostate cancer Wednesday at his home in Bloomington, Indiana, his manager Linda Marder said Friday. Watts joined the faculty of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in 2004. He said in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Watts won a Philadelphia Orchestra student competition and made his debut in a children’s concert on January 12, 1957, when he was ten years old, performing the first movement of Haydn’s Concerto in D major.
He studied with Genia Robinor and made his debut with the New York Philharmonic on January 12, 1963 in a youth concert conducted by music director Leonard Bernstein, a program televised on CBS three days later.
“Now we come to a young man so remarkable I’m tempted to edify him enormously, but I would almost rather not, lest you experience the same unexpected shock of joy and wonder I had when I heard it for the first time “He’s playing,” Bernstein told the audience.
“He was just one of many in a long procession of pianists who sang for us one afternoon, and there he came out, a sensitive-faced 16-year-old boy from Philadelphia…sat down at the piano and began the opening bars of a piece Liszt’s concerto in such a way that we simply turned it around.”
Bernstein conducted Watts and the orchestra in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
“What made Mr. Watts exceptional was a delicacy of touch that enabled the piano to sing,” wrote Raymond Ericson in the New York Times.
Watts impressed Bernstein so much that the conductor chose him to replace Glenn Gould, who was ill, and a few weeks later performed the Liszt concerto twice at the Philharmonie. Within a few months he landed a record deal and became one of the most famous pianists.
“When I’m feeling unhappy, if I sit down at the piano and play gently and listen to the sounds, everything starts to seem fine,” he said in a 1987 episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Born on June 20, 1946 in Nuremberg to a Hungarian mother and a black father who was in the US Army, Watts moved with his family to Philadelphia.
“When I was young, I found myself in the strange position of being neither white nor black with my schoolmates,” Watts told The Christian Science Monitor in 1982.
“Somehow I didn’t fit in that well at all. My mom said two things, ‘If you really think you have to play 125% to get 100% white to get equal treatment, that’s a shame.’ But fighting won’t change that.’ And: “If someone isn’t nice to you, it doesn’t automatically have to be because of the color of your skin.”
“(That advice) has taught me that when I have a complex personal situation, I don’t have to conclude that it is a racial issue. So I think I’ve encountered fewer problems over time.”
Watts’ career was cut short on November 14, 2002 when he suffered a subdural hematoma prior to a scheduled performance with the Pacific Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, California. He was operated on in Newport Beach.
Then, in 2004, Watts underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc that was causing nerve damage in his left hand. He completed the last of more than 40 appearances at Carnegie Hall in 2017 with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. A performance with the New York Philharmonic was scheduled for this November to mark the centenary of the Young People’s Concerts.
He was nominated for five Grammy Awards and was named Most Promising New Classical Recording Artist for Liszt’s 1964 Concerto with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Cultural Program in 1995 and received a National Medal of Arts and a National Humanities Medal from then-President Barack Obama in 2011.
Watts is survived by his wife Joan Brand Watts, stepson William Dalton, stepdaughter Amanda Rees and seven step-children. There were no immediate burial plans.
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