André Watts
André Watts | Credit: Steve J. Sherman

Pianist André Watts died on July 12 of prostate cancer, according to his manager Linda Marder. He was 77.

Watts had a long-term relationship with the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only did he perform in locations from San Francisco to Santa Rosa, but he also had a pivotal role in the creation of an important local organization.

Ruth Felt, founder of San Francisco Performances, told SF Classical Voice:

“In 1979, when I left San Francisco Opera [where Felt was assistant to General Director Kurt Herbert Adler], I told André Watts that I wanted to try to start a new organization to present recitals and chamber music in San Francisco.

“He said he wanted to help me, and he did. He was the special guest at a lunch for prospective donors in the fall of 1979, and he donated his fee for SF Performances’ first recital in the new Davies Symphony Hall in 1980. His great artistry and star power made a huge contribution and launched SFP successfully.”

Noted on the SF Performances website: “When pianist André Watts walked onto the stage of the brand-new Davies Symphony Hall on Nov. 23, 1980, more than 2,500 people witnessed the birth of what is now internationally recognized as a remarkable success story.”

Ruth Felt with André Watts
SF Performances founder Ruth Felt with André Watts during the organization’s first season, which featured Watts, in 1980 | Courtesy of SF Performances

Born on June 20, 1946, in Nuremberg, Germany, Watts was the son of an African American soldier and a Hungarian refugee, Maria Gusmits, an amateur pianist. His interest in classical music, especially the piano, was stimulated by his mother and the environment in Germany.

The family moved to Philadelphia, where the 10-year-old prodigy performed a Haydn concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra at a youth concert. Watts’s parents divorced when he was 13, and he stayed with his mother, rarely seeing his father for the rest of his life.

In 1963 at age 16, Watts made a sensational, headline-generating debut on a TV broadcast of one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with Franz Liszt’s First Piano Concerto — a signature piece for the rest of Watts’s career.

Bernstein, who championed the young pianist, invited him a few weeks later to replace the ailing Glenn Gould in a Carnegie Hall concert, with Watts receiving a standing ovation from the audience and the orchestra.

Watts is often described as one of the first Black classical musicians to become famous on national and international stages.

He rejected the terms “Black” and “white,” saying “they’re both inaccurate. ... A person’s color should be recognized as a means of physical description and then dismissed.”

And yet, he served as a role model for thousands of young musicians of color, inspiring pianists in a way similar to how soprano Leontyne Price influenced aspiring singers.

Watts graduated in 1972 from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where he studied with Leon Fleisher. By that time, Watts was sought after as a soloist in the U.S. and Europe, playing Liszt concertos and works by Frédéric Chopin, César Franck, and Camille Saint-Saëns.

Robert Spano, who has conducted concerts featuring Watts, said the pianist always performed concertos differently, looking for a new interpretation each time.

“Every night was a new adventure,” Spano told The New York Times. “He radiated love to people and to the music, and it was unmistakable. That’s why he was so loved as a performer, because of the generosity of his music making.”

The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where Watts joined the faculty in 2004 and remained a distinguished professor of piano and the Jack I. and Dora B. Hamlin Endowed Chair in Music until his death, mourned him as “a legendary statesman of the art form and a piano superstar, celebrated across the globe as a musical genius.”