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Piano from the Old School


Classical Master André Watts Comes to UCSB

by James Donelan

On Thursday, May 18, a powerful representative of traditional classical music will play a challenging solo piano recital in Campbell Hall. André Watts made his debut in 1963, when Leonard Bernstein chose him to appear on one of the televised Young People’s Concerts in front of the New York Philharmonic. For that appearance, he played Liszt’s E-flat piano concerto, one of the most challenging in the entire repertoire, and the result was inspiring: a new American prodigy performing on the CBS television network.

Recently, Watts admitted that “today, it’s a lot tougher for a young artist to make it. There’s really no one that has become Bernstein’s successor as someone who could make careers happen and get a performance on national television. Lang Lang and Julia Fisher are doing great things, but you can’t imagine the number of people who watched those Young People’s Concerts religiously, and still come up to me and say that they heard me perform on that show.”

Unlike a lot of former prodigies, Watts took off and stayed in flight — he’s still one of a very few pianists with near universal recognition. Although he won’t be playing any Liszt for us tonight, Watts said, “I still love his music and what he stood for. My mother was Hungarian and a lot of people say that the Hungarian connection is what makes Liszt special for me, but that’s not it — I don’t play much Bartók, for instance. Liszt wasn’t just a showman, although he’s known for a few showy potboilers. He’s a little misunderstood — the solo pieces he wrote are really profound. If I’m going to play something, it’s got to be something great for the audience and for me. If I have to spend hours on something in the practice room, it’s got to be something I really want to hear that much.”

Tonight, we’ll hear a rich program of German and French music, pieces that Watts chose for their range and balance. “I like to play Mozart’s Rondo in D Major, K. 485, and the Rondo in A Minor, K. 511 together. You’d think they would sound alike, but they’re very different. The D Major is a great period piece — a kind of powdered-wig Mozart, very formal and characteristic of the 18th century. But the A Minor is so forward-looking, so chromatic.”

To show you what he means by chromatic and forward-looking, Watts will also play works by Chopin, Ravel, and Debussy, but not before some Beethoven and Schubert. According to Watts, “The A Minor Sonata is unusual — for Schubert, it’s very concise and orchestral, made on kind of a building-block structure.” Still, the program isn’t as modern as some of his performances — Watts is well known for giving compelling interpretations of Berio, Ligati, Schulhoff, and MacDowell.

Ultimately, Watts is a teacher — he teaches his audiences how to connect the old with the new, the familiar with the unfamiliar, the simple and the complex. He also has real students at Indiana University: “Six of them, all interesting.” We’ll be glad to be his students at UCSB, too, even if it’s only for one night.

4•1•1 André Watts will perform a solo piano recital at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, May 18, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535.



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