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Remembering pianist André Watts, one of Philadelphia's finest

André Watts, an American pianist of preternatural power and grace, died on Wednesday, July 12 at the age of 77.

André Watts, Credit: Adrian Siegel Collection
The Philadelphia Orchestra Archives
André Watts, age 10, at his student concert debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1957.

Born in Nuremberg, Germany to a Hungarian mother and African-American father, Watts was raised in Philadelphia. While a piano student at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now part of the University of the Arts), Watts made his professional debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of nine.

Seven years later, in 1963, the 16-year-old Watts rose to meteoric stardom when he performed Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in a nationally televised broadcast with conductor Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Acclaimed for its exceptional technique and poise, Watts's performance launched both his decorated career and life-long association with the music of Liszt, which he described as “the pinnacle of joy in virtuosity.”

Andre Watts, 1963

University Musical Society
Conductor Eugene Ormandy, pianist André Watts, french horn player Mason Jones, and stage manager Edward Barnes prepare backstage for The Philadelphia Orchestra's concert on April 29th, 1976.

Watts recorded more than a dozen albums (receiving Grammy nominations in 1975 and 1976 and winning a Grammy for Most Promising New Classical Recording Artist in 1964), won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 1988, was bestowed the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2011, and was elected into the American Philosophical Society in 2020. In 2004, he joined the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where he retained an Endowed Chair in Music until his passing.

Watts frequently returned to Philadelphia to perform with The Philadelphia Orchestra and graciously spoke with WRTI’s Susan Lewis about his long history with the ensemble. Hear their conversation by clicking "LISTEN" below.

Susan Lewis speaks with André Watts in advance of his performance with The Philadelphia Orchestra during the 2014-2015 season.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.
Zev is thrilled to be WRTI’s classical program director, where he hopes to steward and grow the station’s tremendous legacy on the airwaves of Greater Philadelphia.