Remembering André Watts, the American pianist who opened doorways of risk

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Pianist André Watts, age 16, in rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic for one in all Leonard Bernstein’s Younger Folks’s Live shows. CBS Picture Archive/Getty Pictures cover caption

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CBS Picture Archive/Getty Pictures

- Remembering André Watts, the American pianist who opened doorways of risk

Pianist André Watts, age 16, in rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic for one in all Leonard Bernstein’s Younger Folks’s Live shows.

CBS Picture Archive/Getty Pictures

At age 7, I am nonetheless so little that I’ve to tuck my legs beneath me to make myself taller in my seat. I would like a transparent view of the stage as a result of André Watts, my favourite pianist, is about to make his entrance. He passes via San Francisco yearly, and my mom at all times takes my sisters and me to his live shows. We’re all dressed up, three ladies in matching attire with white tights and Mary Janes, so excited to be right here this night. The stage door opens and he strolls out confidently, elegant in his tux and utterly at residence within the highlight. He sits on the piano and my sisters and I lean in, enthralled by this dazzling younger man who seems like he may very well be associated to us, little brown ladies who by no means see anybody who seems like us up on that huge stage.

Watts died final week of prostate most cancers at age 77. He was a legend, from the star-is-born launch of his profession in 1963 when Leonard Bernstein introduced him at age 16 with the New York Philharmonic to his lengthy presence as one of the beloved American artists of his technology. As a child, all of it regarded so glamorous and thrilling — the fairytale origin story, the old-school Romantic virtuosity, the awards and accolades, the autograph-seekers. Again then, I had no clue in regards to the actuality of a life in music, how a lot it assessments you, calls for countless devotion and willpower. And I did not understand how lonely it’s to be the one brown particular person on the stage. I do know that now.

Like me, Watts was blended: Black father, white mom. Studying interviews and articles from early in his profession, I notice that he was no extra capable of sidestep the minefields of race than anybody else in twentieth century America. He instructed The Christian Science Monitor in 1982: “Once I was younger, I used to be within the peculiar place with my college friends of not being white and never being Black both. By some means I did not slot in very nicely in any respect.” And in a New York Instances profile from 1971, I discover this cringe-worthy description: “Relying upon temper and lighting, Watts is able to showing as variously as an austere mulatto dominating one in all man’s most unique professions, a wistful pa’san surveying some Mediterranean terrace, or a bookish adolescent confronting his bar mitzvah.” Granted, occasions (and language) have modified since 1971, however my very own id has been equally debated as I’ve navigated an trade that is discovered me “unique” and exhausting to position.

I by no means had the prospect to speak with Watts in regards to the very latest modifications in our discipline — the long-overdue appreciation of Black composers; some progress, lastly, towards range in American orchestras, opera homes and live performance halls. I hope it made him joyful to witness these developments. However this I do know: Similar to me, each single Black and brown musician who’s lively on these phases at this time regarded to André Watts as a guiding gentle. He impressed us together with his attractive artistry, and he allowed us to see ourselves in his world, to hope and dream and work as exhausting as we might to comply with in his footsteps. He led by instance, and later in his life he actively mentored the following technology of pianists as a Distinguished Professor of Piano at Indiana College’s Jacobs Faculty of Music. He cared about his college students on a deeply private degree; he wrote to me some years in the past recommending one in all them for a younger artists program I directed, describing the younger man as “an altogether fantastic human being.”

Watts liked music with what Bernstein referred to as “a complete embrace.” In his later years, he tried to maintain performing regardless of damage and sickness. The final time I noticed him was in 2016, his first recital after a two-year hiatus, in a marathon program that included at least Schubert‘s monumental “Wanderer” Fantasy. The most cancers was already taking a toll. Backstage after the live performance, he was drained and sad together with his efficiency. I do not keep in mind what I stated that afternoon, however I want I had instructed him how a lot it is due to him that I am even right here — how a lot I owe my profession as a pianist to listening to his live shows once I was a bit of lady, and to seeing him forward of me within the lineage that’s our musical household.

Reflecting on that lineage, I reached out to Bernstein’s kids for his or her recollections of the musical relationship that began André’s profession. His daughter Jamie Bernstein despatched these phrases:

“Alexander and I had been sufficiently old to recollect André Watts’ Younger Folks’s Live shows debut and the vibe our dad communicated on that nationwide broadcast. One thing uncommon and thrilling was about to occur. We all know Watts’ path was stuffed with maddening obstacles, as is more likely to occur to only about any particular person of shade on this nation. However we’re so glad that he was really embraced and acknowledged by the world he labored and performed in. He raised us all. As we Jewish people say, could his reminiscence be a blessing.”

His reminiscence isn’t solely a blessing, however a legacy. André Watts opened a door of risk and promise for my technology, and we stroll via it gratefully, at all times cautious to depart it extensive open behind us for the generations to return.

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