The beginning of pianist Andre Watts’s career was like a sunburst, introduced as a teenager onto the national stage to play with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.
Now, with a music career that has spanned more than 50 years, Watts is returning to an orchestra with whom he has played many times – the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore as well as Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore on the weekend of Nov. 17 through Nov. 19.
“Mr. Watts has had a long and very popular association with the BSO, having first performed with the orchestra in 1973,” said Miryam Yardumian, interim artistic administrator. “He has appeared with the BSO a dozen times since.”
Watts was only 16 when legendary composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein invited him to make his debut with the New York Philharmonic on Jan. 12, 1963, playing Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major by 19th-century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt during one of the orchestra’s televised Young People’s Concerts.
Two weeks later, Bernstein again called on the teenager, asking him to substitute at the last minute for the ailing pianist Glenn Gould, in a repeat performance of Liszt’s E-flat Concerto.
“The first thing that entered my mind was, ‘I’ll have to ask my mother,’” Watts laughed. “Leonard Bernstein was incredibly kind and supportive, but [at the time] I simply wanted to ‘do well’ for my mother and my teacher, Genia Robinor.”
Once onstage, however, Watts realized he also wanted to show Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic that he was “worthy of their kindness,” and that he was capable of producing an outstanding performance once again.
In the 50 years since, Watt has continued to produce them consistently – in multiple venues, on recordings, and on television specials, becoming a luminary of the performing-arts scene.
His recent and upcoming appearances include the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, and the Houston Symphony, among others.
In celebration of Liszt’s 200th birthday in 2011, he played recitals featuring the composer’s music throughout the United States but has also performed in Japan, Hong King, Germany, and Spain.
Watts has appeared on numerous TV programs broadcast on venues such as CBS, PBS, BBC, and Arts and Entertainment Network. His discography includes works by Beethoven, Gershwin, Chopin, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky; he is part of the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series, a 200-CD box set released by Philips Records in 1999.
In 2011, Watts received the National Medal of Arts, bestowed by President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House.
This weekend with the BSO, Watts will be playing Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, in a program that also includes English composer Edward Elgar’s “Falstaff” and the BSO premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’s “Dreamtime Ancestors.”
“The Second Concerto of Rachmaninoff is very popular because – aside from the Hollywood ‘usage’ of the greatest ‘tunes’ in the piece – it is readily listenable, with beautiful melodies,” Watts said. “It has exciting virtuoso passages for the soloist and a great interplay between soloist and orchestra.”
The reference to Hollywood comes from the fact that several movies have used excerpts of the concerto in their scores, including “Grand Hotel.” In “The Seven Year Itch,” the protagonist says he “goes all to pieces” hearing it.
With every passing year that he plays the Rachmaninoff, Watts said he recognizes “this great work as gigantic chamber music.”
But another composer engages him even more – and that’s Austrian composer Franz Schubert.
“He would be my ‘desert island’ composer – and has been since my teenage years,” he said. “Schubert himself, in one of his journals, wrote about his creativity in music: ‘Every time I wanted to sing of Sorrow it turned to Joy, and every time I wanted to sing of Joy it turned to Sorrow.’ That poignancy is at the heart of my passion for his music.”
At the helm of the Nov. 18 concert is Robert Spano, appearing for the fourth time as guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony.
“Mr. Spano loves working with Andre Watts and felt the concerto should be on the second half of the program,” said Yardumian. “He felt the other two works fit nicely with the concerto, as they complement but also offer contrast to it.”
The concert takes place at 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Music Center at Strathmore, on 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda and 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19 at Meyerhoff Hall on 1212 Cathedral Street in Baltimore.
For tickets, call 410-783-8000 or visit BSOmusic.org.