This week we depart from our usual practice, and highlight a living African American artist. Andre Watts is one of the premiere pianists of the last sixty years. I first heard him play with the Houston Symphony in 1973. This week we salute him as an outstanding musician and African American, for our black history day.
Andre was a war baby, born June 20, 1946, in Germany, to a Hungarian mother and a US Army sergeant stationed in Nuremberg. His parents noticed his talent for music and initially tried him on the violin. By the age of six, he had firmly settled on the piano as his instrument. In 1954, the family came to the United States, but his parents’ marriage disintegrated in divorce. Andre stayed with his mother, moving to Philadelphia. He studied at the Musical Academy for the Arts, and won a piano competition against forty other entrants playing a Haydn concerto at age nine.
On January 15, 1963, at sixteen years old, he played a Liszt piano concerto with the Young People’s symphony in Philadelphia for Leonard Bernstein, on national television. Bernstein was so impressed that shortly after, he asked Andre to fill in for an ailing Glenn Gould – and a star was born. At age 20, he played a solo concert in Carnegie Hall.
Andre was awarded an honorary doctor of music degree from Yale, after earning a bachelor’s of music from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and was the youngest person to win the Avery Fisher piano prize.
In the decades since then, Andre has continued to wow audiences, playing for Nixon’s inauguration, serving as artist in residence at the University of Maryland, and performing 150 concerts a year around the globe. Today at seventy-four years old, Andre Watts is on the faculty at Indiana University, where he holds the Jack I. and Dora B. Hamlin Endowed Chair in Music.