The Player 

Why André Watts still attacks the keys like he was 9 years old

In 1963, pianist André Watts burst upon the concert world at age 16, as soloist with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Today, as a seasoned, mature, veteran virtuoso, Watts is still at the top of his profession with super-star name recognition. Creative Loafing talked with Watts about changes in his inner muse and his upcoming Atlanta recital at Symphony Hall.

Creative Loafing: To what extent has your playing changed over the years?

Watts: Years ago, I had a conversation with pianist Gyorgy Sandor, who said to me, 'You're basically the same, musically, as you were when you were 9 years old.' I said, 'How can you say such a thing? That's terrible!' 'No, no,' he said, 'You're much more clever, your technique is better, and you've learned a lot. But very few people change the core of their response to music and how they convey that to listeners.' In other words, if you're an introvert musically at 9, you probably will be at 50; vice versa if you're an extroverted player. There are exceptions, but with many artists there's a kind of continuity and stability to the core of their repertoire, their interests, and the way they make music. And in that sense, I'm sort of the same.

Naturally, life changes with both good and ill fortune. People live through that and may develop generosity of spirit, or become closed in and embittered. I've been very lucky. I've had a lot of small misfortunes, but in big things I've had incredible good fortune. So my aims are a little simplistic, I suppose: trying to examine the music as best I can, figure out what is at the center of it, and how I can convey or project that most directly to listeners. Hopefully I play now with less curlicues, less ornate playing - things that are appropriate to youth. I can still do that if I think the music calls for it, but I try to get more to the heart of the message, simplify, and make more direct communication.

Intriguingly, your recital features selections from Ligeti's "Musica ricercata," some of which was used in Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut, followed immediately by Franz Liszt's very late-period "Bagatelle without Tonality."

People who already know the Ligeti and the Liszt won't be surprised. People who don't will hopefully be shocked by the opening of the Bagatelle, [to them it may] sound like another Ligeti piece, which is great. Liszt died in 1886, and these Ligeti pieces were written in the 1950s. I put them together so that the Liszt progresses in a sense from the Ligeti, [then] merges the conventional Liszt.

So that by the program's end, you get to Liszt at his most familiar, working backward in time through his style. Sort of like unpeeling an onion?

Well, I hope so. That was my idea.

It's a very different approach.

I think we all can never be reminded often enough to - I won't go so far as to say embrace, but simply to be accepting of other viewpoints, of something that is "other" to us. The problem for all of us is that strange, unknown, other, creates fear. Human beings need to work on banishing their fearfulness. Fear brings aggression, and if the world would work a little more on that, we would all be better. If we all took care of our own development, the world would automatically improve.


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