André Watts, 16, debuts with New York Philharmonic

The 16-year-old André Watts debuts with the New York Philharmonic in a Young People’s Concert, nationally broadcast in prime time on CBS, Jan. 15, 1963. Leonard Bernstein introduces him with distinct references to Watts’ race. (His parents were Hungarian and African-American.) This was the Civil Rights Era, after all.

“Look, he was a very smart man, he thought this through,” Watts, referring to Bernstein’s speech, told me in 2016. “I’m sure he discussed it, ‘Can I say this? Can I not say this? How far can I go?’”

With this same piece (Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1) a couple weeks later, Watts substituted for an ailing Glenn Gould on New York Philharmonic subscription concerts, Bernstein conducting. Watts had to ask his mother if it was OK first. A commercial recording on Columbia was also made at the time and is still in print.

Watts performs Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto tonight and tomorrow with Pacific Symphony.

Here are two interviews I did with Watts, nearly 26 years apart.

André Watts Sounds Off. Los Angeles Times, Nov. 30, 1990.

André Watts Looks Back on a Storied Career. Orange County Register, May 27, 2016.

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