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Remembering classical pianist and musical prodigy André Watts

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Classical pianist Andre Watts died last week at the age of 77. Watts is known as one of the first Black superstars in classical music. He became famous at 16 after performing for composer Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic on a nationally televised program called "The Young People's Concert." Bernstein would later call on Watts to perform a concert in place of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who had fallen ill. Watts rose to international fame after that performance, recording extensively with orchestras in the United States and Europe. Here he is performing Brahms' "Concerto No. 2 (Haydn)" with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS' "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OP. 83: II. ALLEGRO APPASSIONATO")

MOSLEY: Watts brought electricity and emotion to his performances, sometimes humming, stomping his feet and bobbing his head as he played. He was born in Nuremberg, Germany, and later raised in Philadelphia. His father was a noncommissioned officer in the Army. His mother was an amateur pianist from Hungary. She's credited with teaching Watts to play the piano beginning at the age of 6. Watts spoke to Terry Gross in 1985, and they begin their conversation talking about those early lessons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANDRE WATTS: There was not a lot of discipline involved, so it was just fun. And actually, I'm, in retrospect, always very thankful about the way I started playing the piano, although it's the unconventional way. And, you know, it makes all those - and I say this with no sarcasm - all those decent, hardworking, long-suffering piano teachers - it makes them shudder when I say that, you know, I put the pedal down for a page at a time just to listen to all that sound building up, you know, and rattled around a mile a minute playing everything but the right notes. You know, and I did that for about a year.

TERRY GROSS: People worry if you do that, you're going to develop bad habits that will be very difficult...

WATTS: Yes.

GROSS: ...To break.

WATTS: It is true, of course, that then when I - this was all in Germany. And then when I came to the United States, when I came to Philadelphia, then my mother thought, well, it seems like he has some talent. So, you know, he - now he should study with someone. And she got me to a piano teacher, and then I had to do scales and had to be told that, well, you know, don't you think that's a lot of different sounds if you don't move your foot, you know, off the pedal? And, yeah, sure, it took a little time. But what I got in that first year, I think, was the real complete - I mean, complete hedonistic, sort of an unalloyed pleasure of playing the instrument, just sitting at the piano and running around with your fingers on it. And that has, in a way, never left me. And I'm very thankful.

GROSS: Did it take a while before your teacher gave you music that you could play that you also really enjoyed as music?

WATTS: No because, you know, when - I came to Philadelphia when I was 8. And by the time I was sort of 8 1/2 or almost 9, I had auditioned to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra with the Haydn concerto. So certainly, within one or two months, she must have gotten me to start learning the Haydn concerto 'cause I was no wizard as far as quick learning. I mean, I was a quick study but no genius, so it must have taken at least half a year to learn the piece. So I had right away challenge, you know, and it wasn't boring, drudgery exercises.

GROSS: Obviously, when you were very young, a lot of people had the sense that you were an especially gifted pianist. Did you feel gifted or special when you were 9 at the time that you played with the orchestra?

WATTS: Well, sure, I probably realized that this was something that I did well that the kids in my class didn't do. But, you know, there were lots of other children who won at the same time that I did and who did - every year, there were other children who won and played. And I remember Linda Child played the same year that I played, and she was only 8 years old. I mean, so she was a year younger and probably played better, you know? I mean, she seemed to be very poised. And there were all kinds of people around. I think that, you know, that uninhibited ability to perform of very young children - of course, if the child has no talent, it doesn't happen. There is no performing. But it - that uninhibitedness, if I can say that, masks a lot of other faults that will develop with the adult...

GROSS: Well...

WATTS: ...And prevent a career or prevent continuing to play in front of the public.

GROSS: It's funny that you should say uninhibited way that children perform 'cause a lot of children were very traumatized by having to get on stage and perform when they were young, either for talent shows or in school or whatever or even at family reunions when their mother would say, play them Brahms, dear. They're all here to...

WATTS: But...

GROSS: ...See us today.

WATTS: It's interesting that you're saying that. Do you think - I mean, I don't know if we should get into this discussion, but do you think they're traumatized by the actual act of, you know...

GROSS: Of playing?

WATTS: ...Of being a trained seal, by the act of it? Or are they traumatized by all the stuff that that entails, vis a vis the parent, the teacher and all that stuff? Isn't that what the hassle is?

GROSS: Yeah, I think the hassle isn't...

WATTS: And the...

GROSS: ...The playing but...

WATTS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The playing at the beck and call of...

WATTS: Yes.

GROSS: ...The adult and...

WATTS: And being called out, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, being an object that you...

WATTS: Roll over and play dead.

GROSS: ...Show off. Yes, that's right. Well, did anything like that ever happen to you? I mean...

WATTS: No.

GROSS: Did you ever feel like a show piece for somebody else?

WATTS: No. I was, again, fortunate because my mother certainly was never, in any stretch of the imagination, a stage mother. She didn't like the idea of - she didn't think it was good to have young children performing a lot. When I lived here when I was about 10 years old, there was a television show called "The Children's Hour," I think. It was called the "Children's Hour." Yeah. And they asked - they called and they asked my mother. I had played with the Philadelphia Orchestra. You know, and they said, we'd like to have him on the show, you know, as a regular. They had wonderfully talented kids, you know? I probably might have gotten lost anyway 'cause the kids were talented in that kind of really fast, you know, spur of the moment kind of great gift way.

But they wanted me to play every Sunday a short piece, you know? And they would pay you $25 per Sunday, which was a ton of money for us at that time. And my mother said, yeah, well, that's very nice, but I don't think so. And then she - you know, she would talk to me and my teacher at that time and said, well, yeah, but the problem is he'll have to spend all week learning that little piece. And he'll be doing that for weeks and weeks, and he won't learn any real music. So I was spared all that kind of - that's why I was never - I never fell in the prodigy mold, really, in the real sense, you know - exploited prodigy.

GROSS: That's interesting.

WATTS: Yeah.

GROSS: By the time you were 16, you played with the New York Philharmonic for the Young People's Concert.

WATTS: Yeah.

GROSS: And then you sat in for the ailing Glenn Gould a few days after that...

WATTS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...With the New York Philharmonic. Did you start thinking at that point, well, I've made it this far; I can either keep going, or I can do something terrible here and fail? Did you feel the incredible pressure that was on you then?

WATTS: Yeah, but not till those concerts were over and not until maybe two or three months later. I felt the pressure very strongly. You see; I played that - the two subscription concerts in place of Glenn Gould, and there was all this hoopla and all this newspaper stuff and managers coming and saying - you know, ready to manage you and record companies and, you know, the whole business. And that was sort of - it was interesting. It was not a real problem. But that summer, I played a concert at Lewisohn Stadium. And then I had to play three concerts on tour with the Philharmonic. So these were my first sort of out there, professional concerts. And then I felt the pressure. And, of course, I was very young. Yes, I was 16. My birthday's in June. So that summer for that tour, I think maybe I'd just turned 17. And I was in a stage where I would sit up all night, you know, waiting for the newspapers to come out. I would watch television until it went off, which it did do in those days, you know, and then read something and then run out and get the newspapers. And, you know, the whole idea that you go someplace and play a concert and somebody wants to do an interview with you before you've played was already strange and unusual.

And I learned very quickly. You know, I would do an interview, and my mother traveled with me. And, you know, somebody would be very pleasant. And I would be very open and free. And I would talk about it, and then that part would be fine. That would all be accurately reflected in the interview when I would read it. But then there would be these things about, well, whether this is just a flash in the pan in this career. And I would think, what do they mean? Oh, yeah, I guess. Sure, I guess. You know, and then it began to dawn on me. You know, how many bad concerts can I play - not intentionally, but, you know - before they, you know, cut my head off and, you know, pitch it away and say, let's not hear from this one again? It didn't last very long for me, worrying about that. I must say.

GROSS: What brought you out of that?

WATTS: Well, I - a number of things, I think. It would be difficult for me to pinpoint. I really believe that at a certain point early on, I realized that you could have a great success even if you played like a pig, and you could play what you felt was truly beautifully and have - make no impact on people. And so I thought, well, you know, hope for the best, and just try to play well, and that's it.

GROSS: So at that point, you stopped using other people's reactions as your gauge of how well you were playing.

WATTS: Yeah. I began slowly to read reviews differently. I mean, they would still have a big impact on me. I remember, you see - so let's see. I played two concerts to substitute for Gould, right? Then I played at Lewisohn Stadium. The next concert was at the Hollywood Bowl. And this was a tour of Bernstein's with the Philharmonic, but Seiji Ozawa was conducting my portion of the concert. So it was Seiji and me. We were this little couple out there, you know, doing this Liszt concerto, and the big New York Philharmonic with Bernstein did the rest of the program. And I stayed up all night, ran down on the street - I stayed in a hotel in Beverly Hills - ran down on the street in the morning, got a newspaper. And you know those little subheadings on newspapers, you know, slightly bigger print, you know, the short headline? And the first part of the review was about the New York Philharmonic and Bernstein. And then there was a subheading, and it said, Watts' melodic line withers on the vine.

And I had just turned 17. And I want to tell you, boy, was this pain, agony, you know, and a lot of suffering. And - but I joke about it now. I talk about it a lot because maybe it was good, in a way, to get such a - that obviously was not meant as a constructive criticism, for God's sake. I mean, you know, you got some 17-year-old kid who's starting his career, and you want to do a hatchet job on him. That's - can hardly be viewed as constructive. You could say that he let the melodic line die, sag and that he needs to learn how to sustain, if that's the case, which I didn't think was the case either, frankly. I didn't agree with the comment, aside from the fact that I thought it was vicious.

And that made me then - it gave me a lot of grief. But I would think about things, and I would think, well, now wait a minute. How - if someone is so ill-disposed, how much faith should you put actually in their musical judgment? How objective are they? I mean, do they really know what they're saying? And that got me over that sort of quickly. I must say, though, I have learned from colleagues older and wiser that one should not read reviews before eating breakfast. And I do tend to avoid it. I really do even to this day.

MOSLEY: Classical pianist Andre Watts speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. He died last week at the age of 77. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDRE WATTS PERFORMANCE OF LISZT'S "4 VALSES OUBLIEES S215: I. VALSE OUBLIEE")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 1985 interview with classical pianist Andre Watts, who died last week at the age of 77.

GROSS: Your mother's white, and your father was Black. I'd like to know if you felt between two different worlds when you were growing up.

WATTS: Precisely. But actually, I've never been asked that question that way. People usually assume and ask with the assumption in the question that you either felt part of the white community or part of the Black community. And they're always a little bit surprised when I go through my palaver, which has developed into a set spiel over the years. But I mean it sincerely, and I'm happy about it, in a certain sense, that the reason that I feel comfortable about throwing stones at any and all races is precisely because, well, I am half Black and half white. That is simply a fact.

But when I was growing up, because of skin color, I didn't belong to the white world. And because it was, you know, in the neighborhood, rather clear that my mother was white, I didn't belong to the Black world. So I was some bizarre case. I mean, obviously, there are other cases. You know, it's not isolated in the world, but it was different. And that - I mean, it didn't cause me necessarily a lot of grief. But there certainly wasn't the sense of identity resulting from belonging to a group - that not. And I kind of like it.

GROSS: When you became of age and started entering the performance world and everything, did anyone ever say to you, well, say, you're part Black; shouldn't you be playing jazz?

WATTS: Oh, all the time.

GROSS: (Laughter) What would you say to that?

WATTS: Well, first I laugh because, I mean - and for a variety of reasons, I laugh. It's probably funny. I - perhaps I laugh out of embarrassment for the other person, not for myself. I really don't know what to say to you because I've heard it so much over the years now.

Because, you know, when I play, I have a lot of body mannerisms, and my mouth moves, and sometimes I sing, unfortunately, and I stamp my feet and stuff like that. And so sometimes people don't even ask. You know, they come backstage and they say, oh, well, we watched you, and boy, you must really play great jazz. And I just sort of say, oh, no, I don't. I mean, when I was much younger, I probably said it apologetically, you know, because I felt like I ought to.

I don't mind. I wish people wouldn't assume that that's the case. If they ask, I find it less of a racially oriented pigeonholing assumption than if they assume. It's when they assume. You know, I always have the urge - I mean, and really not with much anger. I mean, it's more funny - the urge to say, you want to watch me tap dance, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATTS: I mean, you know, it's sort of - I can understand it, of course. It's - you don't really expect - one, the world is not really accustomed to having brown-skinned people playing - sitting at a piano, playing Mozart and Beethoven and Haydn and stuff like that. It makes sense, you know. It's usually those people who are, you know, playing the blues and jazz and stuff like that. I think that's fine. That's great.

But if indeed your senses show you a brown-skinned person playing Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, I'm not so sure you should automatically assume, well, he also must be a successor to Art Tatum. I'd love to be a successor to Art Tatum. Unfortunately, that's not one of my talents.

GROSS: When you began to be successful in the classical music world, did you become an important symbol to Black audiences?

WATTS: I don't know. I got to ask Black audiences. I mean, I like the idea of the role model business. Beyond that, I don't know. I was never very much of an activist.

I also have never been - I'm probably even perverse and will bend over backwards to resist automatically being for something because it's either white or Black. If there's even - if I even sense that there's a - if I get a scent, a hint of that smell, of that kind of a thing, I probably will react against it even before I really know the complete facts, just because I dislike the idea that, well, you should be approving of this because it is Black-oriented. Why? I don't - that's something I never accept.

Or - I mean, it's as silly to me, frankly, as if somebody said, well, you shouldn't be making any criticisms of that because it's Hungarian, and your mother's Hungarian. So? It's her problem, not mine. You know, I don't have to - so I feel sort of strongly about hitting out on that.

GROSS: Do you think your playing's changed a lot over the years?

WATTS: Yes and no. I've said this so often, but I don't know what else to say. My feelings are always the same when I'm asked this question. I once had a conversation with Gyorgy Sandor, the pianist, and he said, well, look, what really happens is that you learn more, and you get more sophisticated, and your equipment gets better. But in principle, there's a core that you play now exactly the way you did when you were 9 years old.

And I believe him. I think he's right. There is a core that doesn't change. The funny, intimate, real - at the core, at the soul of your being, the funny little predilections remain. You know the whole business about when you play a piece basically is - and these are generalizations. I understand that - but basically is your thrust for the making of the piece in an interior way? In other words, you almost project the piece back inside towards yourself, almost as if you're hiding it from any other listeners. Is that your basic leaning?

You know, we're now talking about personality types, actually, is what we're doing, and it gets reflected in the music. Or is your basic leaning that, wow, you figured out how this piece goes, and you play it, and you kind of want it to blossom out? I mean, it's like handing somebody a bouquet and saying, hey, you want to smell this, you know? Those things I don't think change.

MOSLEY: Classical pianist Andre Watts. He died last week at the age of 77. We've been listening to his 1985 interview with Terry Gross. Here he is playing Franz Liszt, "Six Grande Etudes After Paganini, No. 1 in G Minor." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDRE WATTS PERFORMANCE OF LISZT'S "SIX GRANDE ETUDES AFTER PAGANINI, NO. 1 IN G MINOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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