Q&A with André Watts

The Grammy®-winning pianist André Watts remains a regular guest at Ravinia, the Hollywood Bowl, Saratoga, and Tanglewood, received the National Medal of Arts in 2011, holds an endowed chair at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

Aaron Grad recently conducted a Q&A with Watts, who will perform with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Purdue University’s Loeb Playhouse October 15, 2017. (more)

Watts “continues to play like a teenage phenom.”

—Los Angeles Times

You first played with Orpheus in 2003. What was that experience like for you?

Whenever I did interviews, since I was quite young, I always made a big deal out of the idea that concertos—even Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and Liszt—are all like giant chamber music. I still believe that very strongly, but it is not exactly the same when, as a soloist, you go to the conductor when you want something different from the orchestra. It was interesting for me when I played with Orpheus, because it was my first time ever playing with a conductorless orchestra. I was nervous, and I was worried about the rehearsal process, but I found it very easy. Everybody chimed in whenever they had something to say, and it seemed organized, with not the least bit of mayhem! Now I am just looking forward to it.

You are returning with a concerto that Mozart wrote at the age of 21. How do you make sense of what he accomplished in the Piano Concerto No. 9?

There is an agelessness of genius. We too easily forget that genius is something very different than “extremely talented” or “wildly gifted.” When a 21-year-old genius somehow is moved to dig deep inside, there is something timeless and ageless. If we suddenly found out that this concerto, K. 271, is completely mislabeled—that it is not No. 9, but actually No. 28—and if we pointed to the inventiveness and the departures and the slow movement, you might say, “I’ll buy it.”

What makes this concerto so inventive?

Right at the opening you have this enormous departure. There is an orchestral fanfare just over a bar in length, and then the piano responds immediately. That is quite revolutionary. This concerto also has Mozart’s first slow movement of real profundity. It is an extremely beautiful and emotional movement. The last movement starts as if it is going to be one of the Mozartean romps, and then suddenly, just dropped from the heavens, a minuet appears in the middle of the movement. When you hear this part of the concerto, you can just see them dancing, with the powdered wigs and the buckled shoes and the brocaded clothes, and these formalized movements. It’s quite extraordinary.

How has your approach to this concerto changed over the years?

As I get older, playing this piece means trying to understand it better and trying to play it more directly. When you are young, your playing has a lot of curlicues. With the passage of time, probably you are zeroing in more on the center of things, and trying to focus and be more directly expressive, in an attempt to say what you think the composer wanted to say.

Orpheus has commissioned a new work from jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer to appear alongside Mozart and Beethoven. What is your perspective on the long lineage of keyboard performers and improvisers who also compose?

In the twentieth century, the separation between performing artists and composers got wider. Having Iyer’s piece on the program brings it back closer together: the performer-as-composer, the composer-as-performer, those two disciplines being one entity. That was precisely the case with Mozart and Beethoven. In recent years there has been a little increase, and this program could be a sign of the future, pointing even more to the resurgence of composer-performers.

-Interview by Aaron Grad

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with André Watts at Purdue