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Life and early performances
Born in Nuremberg, Germany, Watts is the son of a Hungarian mother, Maria Alexandra Gusmits, a pianist; and an American father, Herman Watts, a U.S. Army non-commissioned officer. André spent his early childhood in Europe, living mostly near army posts where his father was stationed. He began to study the violin when he was four. By six he decided the piano was his instrument. When André was eight years old, Herman's military assignment brought the family to the United States. They settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His mother started him with his first piano lessons. As do many children, Watts disliked practicing. For encouragement, his mother would tell stories of the great pianist and composer Franz Liszt, making it clear that Liszt practiced faithfully. Watts found inspiration in Liszt, adopting his theatrical playing style. After the divorce of his parents in 1962, Watts remained with his mother, who supported them by working as a secretary and later as a receptionist.
Watts enrolled at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now a part of the University of the Arts), where he studied with Genia Robinor, Doris Bawden, and Clement Petrillo, graduating in June 1963. He entered his first competition at nine, with forty other children, for the opportunity to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra Children's Concerts. Watts won the competition playing a concerto by Joseph Haydn.
At age ten, Watts performed Mendelssohn's G minor concerto with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra and at fourteen, Franck's Symphonic Variations, again with the Philadelphia Orchestra. At sixteen, he auditioned at Carnegie Recital Hall in a competition to play in conductor Leonard Bernstein's televised Young People's Concert series with the New York Philharmonic.
Watts' performance of the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat at a Young People's Concert on January 12, 1963, was videotaped and nationally televised on CBS on January 15, 1963. Before the concert, Bernstein introduced Watts to the national television audience, stating that he "flipped" when he first heard Watts play.
On January 31, 1963, Bernstein asked Watts to fill in for the ailing Glenn Gould, the scheduled soloist for the New York Philharmonic's regular subscription concert. Watts again played the Liszt E-flat Concerto. When he had sounded his final cadenza, the whole orchestra joined the audience in a standing ovation. Watts' first LP, The Exciting Debut of André Watts, was shortly thereafter released on Columbia Masterworks records and included the Liszt Concerto with Bernstein and the Philharmonic.
Following graduation, Watts enrolled at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where he studied part-time for a Bachelor of Music degree with pianist Leon Fleisher. The following year, he appeared at New York City's Lewisohn Stadium with conductor Seiji Ozawa, and the New York Philharmonic, performing Camille Saint-Saëns' Concerto No. 2 in G minor. In September 1963, he again performed the Liszt concerto at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. He opened the 1964-65 season of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., again performing the Saint-Saëns concerto. He returned to New York in January 1965 to perform Chopin's Concerto No. 2 in F minor. Watts made his European debut in a London performance with the London Symphony Orchestra in June 1966.
By 1969, he was on a full-scale concert schedule, booked three years in advance. Watts made his Boston debut in 1969 for the Peabody Mason Concert series. He graduated from the Peabody Institute in 1972.
In February 1973, Watts was selected as Musical America's Musician of the Month. Other honors and awards include doctor honoris causa from Albright College and Yale University, the Order of Zaire, a University of the Arts Medal from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and the National Medal of Arts.
By the mid-1970s, Watts was giving 150 concerts, recitals, and chamber performances per season, performing about eight months out of the year. In 1976, at age thirty, he celebrated his tenth consecutive appearance in the Lincoln Center Great Performers Series at Avery Fisher Hall. The PBS Sunday afternoon telecast was the first solo recital presented on Live from Lincoln Center and the first full-length recital to be aired nationally in prime time.
In November 2002, Watts suffered a subdural hematoma and underwent emergency surgery. In 2004, he also had surgery for a ruptured disc which was affecting the use of his left hand. He continued performing regularly after recovering from the surgeries.
In 2004, Watts joined the faculty at Indiana University, where he holds the Jack I. and Dora B. Hamlin Endowed Chair in Music.
In 2019, he underwent surgery for a nerve injury to his left hand resulting in the cancellation of several performances. He has reworked the Ravel Concerto for Left Hand to perform with his right hand and will be performing the work with the Detroit and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras.
Watts has recorded for several music labels. He signed a long-term exclusive contract with Columbia Masterworks Records on his 21st birthday. In 1977, he revealed that his contract had been terminated.
Awards and recognitions
- 1964 Most Promising New Classical Recording Artist
- 1973 Honorary Doctorate, Yale University
- 1975 Honorary Doctorate, Albright College
- 1984 Distinguished Alumni Award, Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University
- 1988 Avery Fisher Prize
- 1988 University Of The Arts Medal, Philadelphia
- 2011 National Medal of Arts
- 2013 American Classical Music Hall of Fame
- 2014 Cincinnati MacDowell Society's MacDowell Medal
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- Emmett G. Price III; Tammy Kernodle; Horace Maxille (2010). Encyclopedia of African American Music. ABC-CLIO. p. 994. ISBN 9780313341991. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
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- Webster, Daniel (March 25, 1988). "Andre Watts On 25 Years As Pianist And Survivor He'll Play A Recital And Receive The First University Of The Arts Medal On Sunday". Philly.com. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
- "IU Jacobs School of Music professor Watts receives 2011 National Medal of Arts". Jacobs School of Music. Indiana University Bloomington. February 13, 2012. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
- "University Honors & Awards". Indiana University. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
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- "André Watts". Indiana University Bloomington. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
- "This Day in UMS History: New York Philharmonic and Seiji Ozawa with Andre Watts (September 21, 1969)". University Musical Society. University of Michigan. September 21, 2010. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
- "Classical Notes". Billboard. December 10, 1977. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
- "Andre Watts". Naxos Records. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
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- Otfinoski, Steven (14 May 2014). African Americans in the Performing Arts. Infobase Publishing. p. 235. ISBN 9781438107769. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
- "Alumni Award Winners". Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute. Archived from the original on 2016-02-16. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
- "Pianist Andre Watts inducted into Classical Music Hall of Fame, awarded MacDowell Medal". October 31, 2014. Retrieved July 3, 2016.