The first African-American classical performer to gain world superstardom, Andre Watts actually spent much of his boyhood in Europe.
Born in Germany to an African-American Army sergeant, Herman Watts, and a Hungarian mother, Maria Alexandra Gusmits, Watts didn’t come to the states until he was eight.
They say father knows best, but it was Watts’ mother who was most instrumental in his musical career. When her youngster wouldn’t practice, she told him stories of her countryman, the legendary piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. Watts’ identification with Liszt became so complete that the young performer adopted the Hungarian’s famously flamboyant performing style.
Watts big break came when he played his hero’s E-flat Concerto at Lincoln Center for a nationally broadcast concert on CBS in 1963. Leonard Bernstein, who conducted Watts and the New York Philharmonic in that broadcast, then invited the young pianist to substitute for an ailing Glenn Gould for a subscription concert that same year. That performance not only garnered Watts an ovation from audience and orchestra alike, it opened the door to a successful recording and touring career.
At this year’s Savannah Music Festival, Watts will perform one of his signature repertoire pieces, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on March 19 at 3 p.m. in the Johnny Mercer Theatre.
Connect Savannah: Surely you’ve played in Savannah before.
Andre Watts: I played there with Philip Greenberg. I believe it was the Second Brahms and the Second Rachmaninoff.
Connect Savannah: Casual fans will remember that the movie Shine highlighted Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. But you’re actually playing his Second. Tell us about that piece.
Andre Watts: It’s like a gigantic Rachmaninoff symphony really, with a gigantic piano part. It has a lot of famous tunes. Since a lot of the tunes were used by Hollywood and all, we tend to forget what a really fabulous composition it is, and how well constructed.
Connect Savannah: Is the Third really as difficult as the movie portrayed?
Andre Watts: Well, the Third is very difficult to play. I’d say the movie was a little bit hyped. You do find people who think the Second is actually more difficult. I’m not necessarily one of them.
Connect Savannah: Are you still as big a fan of Franz Liszt and the Romantic period as when you started out?
Andre Watts: I’m still Lisztian, I guess you’d say, still a believer in the music and the ideals of the man and the composer. It was an age of virtuosos, of that kind of self-expression, where that kind of young man could become a virtuoso. At the time there was sort of an attitude that we humans can rival God, that kind of thing. Then of course you had Paganini, a similar kind of virtuoso for the violin.
Connect Savannah: Small-market symphonies, like Savannah’s, are folding all over the U.S. What does this mean for the future of classical music?
Andre Watts: Well, from what I understand you had a lot of other things going on in Savannah. You had some real internal problems.
I’ll tell you about my very first experience with the Savannah Symphony. One of the players had a thermometer of some type where they were sitting. When that person saw that the temperature was two degrees hotter than their union contract allowed, they stopped playing and wouldn’t play anymore until something was done. I’m sitting there thinking, well, I don’t want to die of heat stroke either -- but come on!
It’s one of the problems of modern society, really, that go way beyond music. It seems there’s so much standing on one’s own rights, and that’s the first, primary and only thing of interest.
Again, it’s part of a bigger problem. You have governors in this country running around talking about how federal funding is drying up for states. So of course the funds are going to dry up in the arts as well.
Overall it’s not in a good situation. But I don’t think it’s in dire straits. I always hope it will get better.
Andre Watts performs this Sunday with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at 3 p.m. at the Johnny Mercer Theatre. For tix and info go to www.savannahmusicfestival.org