Over the course of his 41-year career, accolades have come to pianist Andre Watts as naturally as the music that flows from his broad hands. Much has changed in the music world over those four decades, but today, just as when he made his stunning debut with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at age 16, Watts, now 57, plays for the music, not the laurels.
Watts performs with the Toledo Symphony next Friday and Saturday nights. He spoke candidly last week from New Jersey about the classical music industry, his long career, and his art. The picture he presented was generally inspiring, but sometimes gloomy.
On the downside, Watts talked of a contracting music industry that offers fewer and fewer opportunities for both emerging and established artists. Creating a professional life in music is harder, more serendipitous than ever, he said.
Meanwhile, a nervous music industry, perhaps desperate to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, is zealously putting its centuries-old music in new packages. Surface gloss is too often highlighted over substance.
"There has always been yet another new young player coming on the scene. But now the attitude seems to be 'The day before yesterday you won something and your name was famous. Yesterday, I did and I have eclipsed you already.' People forget so quickly," he said.
Perhaps part of the problem is that today one has to make lots of noise just to be noticed at all.
Even music criticism has become increasingly trenchant, said Watts.
"Today, the focus is on the punch line. Critics can make a reputation by killing someone famous. They are quick to throw a punch and use an opportunity to come up with a good line," he said.
The problem with hype of all types is that it highlights surface over depth. Watts outlined the following scenario:
"My enemy and best friend come into a room and they both stumble. One is endearingly clumsy, the other is a clumsy jerk. But what does that real
ly tell you?"
Not what you need to know, said Watts.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that while the music industry has increasingly chased after short-term exterior features, Watts has been steadily directing his own gaze inward.
"Life changes you. With age you look for more directness; you are less seduced by the exterior aspects of things. Instead, you look for simplicity, for the core. Your music changes because you change. It's that simple.
"Music for me is like eating, like food. It's essential. But while my life without a private involvement in music is unthinkable, you have to realize that that level of music-making can be separated from performing."
For Watts, the drive to perform is a character trait both separate from and connected to his love of music. Tellingly, it has not diminished with time.
"For me, performance is a gregarious sharing, like calling your friend in to see some new toy. I want others to see the things I have found.
"My job is to proffer. If I have something cupped in my hands, my natural inclination, without any thought at all, is to say, 'Hey man, look at this.' If I have something worth looking at, I want everyone to see it," he said.
It's the same with his music.
"I might want you to say 'Andre, that is really great,' but in the end, that's really worthless. Fame is nice, and has perks. So, when you are young and resilient, is traveling around the world. It's exciting to experience new things."
"But I will be 60 before long, and I don't feel like it did as a young man. If I want the kind of public acclamation that I had when Bernstein was young and I was a kid and we were the greatest things going, I won't be satisfied. I am different and that's that. But at the same time, I would be desolate without a career. It is nice to be asked to make music, to meet somebody musical and work together. That's fun.
"You are getting into deep stuff when you perform. Some of the feeling of unsuccessful performance for players is when they haven't been able to dig down and touch deeper aspects of themselves in the performance. But if I focus on what I believe, it gets across.
"I am a talker rather than a mumbler. As I get into something, I turn around and offer it out. I want people to hear what I hear. I know what the notes do, and have to make sure that they hear it, too. I am just trying to put the music out there so people can accept it or reject it. You can't hedge. You just go out and play.
"That sounds so easy, but not every concert is great, of course. It's easy to say that while sitting in this room, but sometimes you are dying at the piano. In that case, you do all you can do, then you go home."
Born in Nuremberg in 1946, Andre Watts is the son of an American GI and his Hungarian wife. Watts made his professional debut on a Young Person's Concert with Leonard Bernstein. Two weeks later, the conductor asked him to return to the orchestra to fill in for an ailing Glen Gould. It was a storybook beginning to a dazzling career. At age 26, Watts became the youngest person ever to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University. Although a traditionalist in terms of his repertoire, Watts has been at the forefront of concert innovation. He performed television's first full-length piano recital in 1976.
This will be the first time Watts has worked with Toledo Symphony conductor Stefan Sanderling. He has, however, performed with Sanderling's father, the renowned German conductor Kurt Sanderling.
Andre Watts performs Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 with conductor Stefan Sanderling and the Toledo Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Also on the program is music by Beethoven and Dietz. Tickets range from $15 to $43. Information: 419-246-8000.