Dallas Symphony starts with Watts
Andre Watts, violinist.It could have happened. Watts’ mother required that music be a part of his education, while he was growing up in Germany.”I played the violin for six months and I didn’t enjoy that particularly,” Watts said. “I said, ‘You just said I had to do some kind of music and I’ll do the piano instead.’ There was a piano in the house. So, she said yes and then I guess I made quick progress on the piano.”And, the world of classical music is forever grateful for the switch.Watts, simply a piano legend, will help Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra open their Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival residency tonight at 6 at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater with a program of John Mackey, MacDowell, Poulenc and Ravel.
Watts and Litton have a special connection to MacDowell’s “Concerto No. 2 in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra.” In 1983, Litton made his subscription debut with the National Symphony Orchestra when the originally scheduled conductor fell sick.The piece was the same MacDowell and Watts was behind the piano.”Oh, I remember that very well,” Watts recalled. “Immediately,it was clear that he was really, really good, but not puffed up, not arrogant, which is something you encounter fairly often with gifted people. I still have a copy of the performance. It was awfully good.”The two are close friends, sharing a love of music on the stage as well as a love of wine and food off it. And, like Litton, Watts made his debut as a replacement, but in a somewhat more dramatic fashion.Leonard Bernstein asked him to fill in for Glenn Gould to play Liszt’s “E-Flat Concerto” with the New York Philharmonic. Watts was all of 16 at the time, and in retrospect, it was probably a good thing.”What that meant in the career sense wasn’t terribly apparent to me at the time,” Watts said. “Look, I was 16. I was a student. I wanted to play well. I wanted Bernstein and the orchestra players not to think I was some kind of a dud. But if I had really been more savvy let’s say about (my) career and all that, I would have been paralyzed with fear.
“As it was, I was normally nervous and just trying to play a concert. I can say it now. It’s ancient history. I was a little surprised at the response. I guess a couple of months later, I looked around and thought, ‘Well, I guess I have the beginning of a career now.'”And, that would be quite the understatement. Watts’ latest recording includes the MacDowell which will be performed tonight.”It’s an American work. But, it’s easy to forget how long ago MacDowell lived and how old his repertoire is,” Watts said. “Sure, it has the individual stamp of MacDowell which I guess you can call American, if you want. However, it’s really European Romanticism. That’s really what his education was and what he was about. It’s a high Romantic virtuoso piece that’s very well put together, well-composed structurally and orchestration-wise, it’s a really fun concerto.”The program begins with composer-in-residence John Mackey’s “Redline Tango” and ends with Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe: Suite No. 2.” After intermission comes Poulenc’s “Concerto in D-Minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra.” Watts will be on one bench and Litton on the other in what is sure to be a memorable moment.”We’ve done it before and, thank God, because we’ve only got one rehearsal this year,” Watts laughed. “It’s going to be tough, I have to say. First of all, I have to say Andrew made me a score of this, a really special score. So, we don’t need page turners. He went to a lot of trouble. I couldn’t believe it.
“… Look there all kinds of things I could say – all kinds of details and quirks in the piece. You talk between the two pianos – what should have priority here and maybe you should duck under there a little bit so this line will rise, just musical decisions. But the ensemble, look, it’s hard work for Andrew. It’s really tough. The beginning of the first movement, and certainly the beginning of the third movement is tough. It moves at a good clip. Everybody just has to play attention and count, and you hope for the best.”When Watts and Litton last performed at Bravo! two years ago, they finished with a fantastic piano duet for an encore. Will we see something similar two years later?”It depends on how well behaved you are, he says, throwing out a mysterious carrot,” Litton joked. “I’m not telling you anything. You’ve got to torture me.”Whatever the pick is, though, we’re pretty sure Watts won’t be playing the violin.