André Watts 1946-2023

July 17, 2023
André Watts made his debut at age 16 with the New York Philharmonic.

The American pianist André Watts died on July 12, age 77, in Bloomington, Indiana. The cause was prostate cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2016.

The son of a Hungarian pianist mother and a black American G.I. father, Watts was taught by his mother from age 4. He famously made his professional debut at age 16 performing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in a live 1963 New York Philharmonic Young People’s concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Two weeks later he subbed for an ailing Glenn Gould performing the same work at Philharmonic subscription concerts.

He studied at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore part-time for a Bachelor of Music degree with pianist Leon Fleisher. But by then Watts was already enjoying a flourishing international career, which continued nearly to the end of his life.

The pianist made relatively few recordings and similarly limited his concerto appearances to, apart from a couple Mozart concertos, a handful of Romantic works: Liszt 1, Saint-Saëns 2, Beethoven 4 and 5, Brahms 2 and Rachmaninoff 2 and the Rhapsody.

While his repertoire was not vast, a live Watts performance invariably offered a special evening. Even at age 16 and in a potboiler like the Liszt E flat, his individual blend of bristling virtuosity allied to a singing, poetic sensibility was already manifest.

Watts was an annual, hugely popular visitor at Ravinia for four decades, and local concertgoers will have their own favorite musical memories. A performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with James Levine conducting the CSO in the 1980s remains in the memory for thrilling bravura aligned to expressive depth. The pianist rendered the Adagio with a tonal subtlety and sensitivity of phrasing and hues that has never been equaled.

Watts is survived by his wife Joan Brand and two stepchildren.

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