André Watts has successfully extended an initial burst of publicity into decades of popular success and critical acclaim. He brings a marked lyrical quality to the standard piano repertory. Born on a United States Army base in Nuremberg, part of the U.S. Occupied Zone of Germany in the years following World War II, he was the son of an American soldier who had married a Hungarian woman. His mother gave André his first piano lessons.
When the family returned to the U.S. they settled in Philadelphia, and Watts continued his piano studies. At the age of nine he made his public debut in a children's concert, playing Haydn's D major Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He continued studies at the Philadelphia Music Academy, where his teachers were Doris Bawden and Clement Petrillo.
Watts was 14 when he made his official Philadelphia Orchestra debut, in César Franck's Symphonic Variations. His real breakthrough came two years later when Leonard Bernstein asked him to appear on a New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert that was broadcast nationwide. Watts became a national sensation in the Liszt E flat concerto, which he played with complete technical mastery and self-assurance. Two weeks later, Glenn Gould was forced to cancel a regular subscription concert due to illness. Bernstein called on Watts as a last-minute replacement, and he reprised the Liszt concerto to the approval of New York's tough critics and audiences. Watts then settled on the great teacher and pianist Leon Fleisher as his mentor, emerging as a complete pianist and artist, with his technique polished of any insecurities and his own personal interpretations of familiar music in place. Watts began to build an international reputation with appearances in London and at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, all the while completing a degree at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.
After making his Carnegie Hall solo debut in New York at the age of 20, Watts celebrated his 21st birthday by playing Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He returned to Nuremberg for a recital in 1970 and was hailed as a returning native son. Watts has often been selected to perform at important commemorative events, playing for example at a concert in honor of Richard Nixon's first inauguration as president in 1969. In 1976 a Watts recital was featured on the U.S. PBS network's Live from Lincoln Center program; it was the first full-length piano recital ever broadcast on television, and, with his telegenic looks, he remained a favorite of broadcast audiences. In 2000 he appeared internationally on television in a program celebrating the Philadelphia Orchestra's centennial.
Watts specializes in the standard repertory from Beethoven through Rachmaninov, often performing Mozart and Scarlatti as well. He has been an unusually frequent recipient of prestigious prizes, becoming (at 26) the youngest person ever to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University and winning the Avery Fisher Prize in 1988. Watts remains active as a performer, recording artist, and teacher; beginning in 2000 he served as Artist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland. He has recorded in recent years primarily for the Telarc and Angel/EMI labels, and a double-CD release in the Philips "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" series, featuring music by composers ranging from Beethoven to Gershwin, serves as a good introduction to his work and retrospective appreciation of his stature.