André Watts

Pianist and 2011 National Medal of Arts Recipient
André Watts

Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Transcript of conversation with André Watts

That's pianist and 2011 National Medal of Arts recipient, André Watts playing Liszt's "Transcendental Etude Number 10."

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host Josephine Reed.

André Watts burst upon the music world at the age of 16 when he made his debut with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in one of their Young People's Concerts. Two weeks later, Bernstein invited him back to the Phil harmonic to substitute   for the ailing Glenn Gould. When Watts sounded his last note, the entire orchestra joined the audience in giving him a standing ovation and a career was launched.   

The son of a Hungarian pianist and an African-American soldier, Watts spent his early childhood in Europe, before the family moved to Philadelphia. He began studying the piano when he was six. Sixty years later, to the delight of millions, he's still at it. A brilliant classical pianist, who's a perennial favorite with  audiences, orchestras, and conductors around the world. Celebrated for His superb technique, passionate intensity  and wide-ranging repertoire, André Watts is equally at home with   recitals, broadcasts, and recordings.

A much-honored artist who has played before royalty in Europe and heads of government in nations all over the world, André Watts has received many awards and now the highest award given an artist by the United States government, the National Medal of Arts.

I spoke to André Watts backstage at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. I began our conversation by asking him what drew him to the piano; did he have a choice or was it made for him?

André Watts: It was made for me. Actually, I made the initial decision because I studied the violin and my mother didn't want me to be a musician. But she insisted that I study music. And so I studied the violin and after about six months I said, "Well, you said I just had to do music. Couldn't I do the piano instead of violin?" And she said, "Yeah," she didn't care. And so actually in that sense I chose it. But then after that, as happens to so many musicians, it chose me in the sense that you're a child, you don't have autonomy over your life. You don't really make life decisions. Those are made for you. And so my teacher, my mother, had me audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra and I won one of those auditions, with lots of other kids. But I got to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra and then so that started the ball rolling, put it on the road of practicing more because it looked like, "Wow. Gee. Looks like that's what the kid is really good at." <laughs> Better at that than math and science and all that. And then it went on. I auditioned a few more times and look, by the time I was 16, yes, great. And so I did the Young People's concerts with Bernstein and all that kind of thing. My mother had to sign the contract. I was underage.

Jo Reed: Is it difficult to make the transition from playing as a child to playing as an adult, to no longer being the prodigy?

André Watts: That happens a lot to musicians if careers start early. What happens is that by the time they become adults… Should take it away from me, because I wouldn't want to compare myself with him anyway, but you can see that it has difficulties even for people much more gifted than someone like me. If you take a man who, really kissed by the gods, like Yehudi Menuhin. Yehudi Menuhin, when he became and adult, so to speak, a year or 2 or 3 after he passed 21, he realized that he hadn't actually chosen this profession. And he had to restart, so to speak. And that becomes a difficult situation for a lot of people.

Jo Reed: Was that true for you as well?

André Watts: Mine was easy. But I got lucky. Mine was easy because when I was 23, I became quite ill and I was told I wouldn't be able to play for 6 months, and it came at a time where I was unprepared for some concerts I had promised anyway. So it was the perfect blessing, and I thought, "God, six months of vacation." I wasn't feeling well at that time, but I thought, "Well, I'll feel good in a month or two and then I'll have a couple of months off." And after about, I don't know, three weeks, I started trying to make deals with the doctor about, "Well, could I practice for an hour a day?" And I started to move in on him. Unintended. It just came. I was just acting naturally, whatever I felt. And once I got him to let me practice, I could be at the piano an hour a day, and then in another two weeks, two hours a day. And I started working on him. "How soon could I play a concert?  When could I start?" And by the time that rolled around, sort of took me couple weeks to recognize, "Oh, my gosh. So that means you really did choose yourself. You've been fighting and struggling and maneuvering to get to play." So that was a blessing, kind of, in disguise and if you want to call it that. That was a blessing for me to really, well, to discover that but to have the opportunity to choose was really a blessing.

Jo Reed: Do you remember what you missed?

André Watts: Well, I actually missed the music itself. I would enjoy a lot of music. But part, a big, enormous part, of my enjoyment of music, is actually doing it myself. Is actually making the sound and changing, adjusting, fixing, altering, manipulating the sound yourself. Part of that, it's, of course, partly habit I've been doing it for so long, but it's now a need. It's like an addiction. So that's a great part of what music means to me is playing.

Jo Reed: I want to talk just very briefly about practice, because, yes, you were a prodigy, but practicing still, I would imagine, is a trial for a kid. Was that true for you?

André Watts: Oh, yes. Practicing is hard work. And you don't find many children who want to do hard work. It's difficult. You don't find many adults <laughs> who want to do hard work. <laughs> And practicing is, well, I'm sure everyone's different. I should speak for myself, not for other people. If I don't think carefully about what I'm saying or even think carefully to myself privately about what I'm feeling and thinking, the superficial response is, "Oh, well, come on. Let's go out and have a great meal and have phenomenal food and great wine and then I'll have a great cigar and I'll sleep late and I won't practice." And superficially, sure, okay. Yeah. Yeah. We give lip service to, "I don't want to do the work." In actuality what happens is, you know, it happens from time to time. You have two or three days where you really don't practice. "Yeah, yeah. I don't feel very good," ultimately. And I get crabby and short-tempered and impatient and careless and then at some point it occurs to me, "Hey, maybe, why don't you just stop everything, go to the piano, play a little, see what you feel like?" And then, of course, what happens is then you find out, I mean, I'm exaggerating, but I'm being truthful. <laughs> I'm just exaggerating. It's not always the same. But then I find myself changing the schedule and canceling outside appointments and things because actually, all along, that's really what I wanted to do was to practice. Because, "I want to work on that piece, because I can't play that piece yet. It's not any good. So I need to practice it some more, and I like that piece," and like that.

Jo Reed: I would say it's a rare child who can reason that out?

André Watts: One of the difficulties, of course, is this is a-- obligation's not the right word, but the onus is on the grownups. Some grownup, some adult, let's say, encourages, needs to encourage the child, to practice. Which means some imposition of discipline, in other words, "Look. You really have to practice half an hour every day of the week," or "You really have to practice an hour every day." Like that, right?  And, of course, a child. So you can make, you can help, your child understand that, "Wow, that's how life goes and things like that happen. You have obligations and you have to do them and you don't always want to do it, but that's part." And that can be done in a positive way or it can be done purely in a negative way, so that when it's negative then there's that love-hate relationship that goes on, which causes lots of complexes, which we all know about from musicians. Many musicians have these kinds of things. So the practicing issue is very, very complicated. When I was 16 and I didn't, you know, I knew something about music, but I had no sense of career and it was also my first time to play a concert and really have strangers come back to see me in a green room. I didn't know what that was. And I remember, a lady came with her son. It was one of the Bernstein Young People's concerts. And a lady came with her son and the boy was really young boy. Six, seven, I don't know, eight years old. Very excited and wide-eyed and shining and he was looking at me and the mother came and she was a woman twice my age, I'm sure, and very nice and very kind and she smiled and she called me Mr. Watts, which was weird. And she said, "How much do you practice?" And I said, "Oh, about six hours a day." And she turned to her son and grabbed his ear and twisted his ear and said, "You hear that?  Six hours. You're going to go home and--" and I looked at him. I was sort of in a state of shock. I was a little bit frozen. I looked at him and looking, his eyes turned from interest, adulation, to, "You traitor, you. You ruined my life." <laughs> "What's going to happen to me?" And I actually never forgot that. It took me I don't think more than that day, probably the next concert I played, when somebody came and, especially if they came with a child, and said, "How much do you practice?" I didn't even answer them. I tried to be polite but I wouldn't even answer them. I would look at the child and say, "How old are you?" And they would give me an age and I would say, "Well, gosh. When I was seven I probably practiced--" and I would either tell the truth or shade it down if it looked like it was unnecessary. But basically I practiced an hour a day or something, which was not the question that I was asked. But it's not fair. I was 16 and looked like that was going to be my profession. And here's a child, six, seven years old. How do you know?  Well, fine. Make them practice an hour a day, two hours a day. I don't know. But they have to do all these other things so you can find out, "What is their gift?" Or are you just forcing some kid, this imposed decision from outside, "You will be this. You will be that. You will be that"?  limiting for the child and, boy, if you're wrong, very destructive.

Jo Reed: Let's talk about Leonard Bernstein. He was quite instrumental in your career.

André Watts: Well, the unvarnished fact, is he basically handed me a career, basically, out of thin air, from one day to the next. Created a career for me. Said, "Here, kid you want this?  It's yours. You've got a career." "Bang." Just done, because of who he was. He was a great musician, of course, but he was famous. So it all started with my teacher, Genia Robinor, who one day said to my mother and to me, "Well, I didn't tell you, but some weeks ago I wrote in to the Young People's concerts and I got an answer back and so we're going to go next week to New York and audition. He was accepted to audition." And I went to audition. I went with my teacher. <laughs> She played the second piano part. And Bernstein wasn't there. It was Helen Coates and the three assistants, assistant conductors. And I played. I'd actually played two weeks before in another competition for the Merriwether Post where I didn't even get past the first round. And I played really well. And this time I played okay but I didn't play quite as well as I had two weeks before where I didn't make it. So I finished playing and these four people-- it was Carnegie Recital Hall, and these four people stood up and applauded. And I thought, "Wow, they're nice. They probably do that for everybody." Because I didn't think it was that great. And then we found out, no, it's okay. "You get to the next round." It's only two rounds, that one and then the next one, which was in the new Philharmonic Hall, which is now Avery Fisher. And there was Bernstein. And my image of Leonard Bernstein's very strong, because he had his right hand in a sling. And was a black sling. Looked very elegant. And I remember, and so he would greet everyone and he would stretch out his left hand and he had a really great looking watch. I remember <laughs> the watch. And look, he was a very handsome man. He was a very startling looking specimen of a human being, but it was really from what was inside. It was the force of the persona, there was all those words, aura, halo and whatnot, and you kind of were mesmerized. You talked to him and you're just kind of looking at him. I don't know. Like something magical. So I met him and then I played. When I won and I played for the Young People's concerts, which was the beginning of my having a career, because it was on television and because of what Bernstein said, like, "This kid is great," and "He's going to continue to be," blah, blah, blah, whatever. Was so over the top, everything he said. I played E-flat Liszt and Bernstein conducted for me and so that was the beginning of a career.

E-flat Liszt up and hot

This was in 19, it was the fall of '62. But people forget that in 1962 we still had miscegenation laws in this country in certain places of the United States so that when I, in '63, '64. In 1965, when I went to play in Miami, my manager called me into his office and said, "You know, André, I just want you to know, it's Miami and you probably will have no problem. But you need to know that technically, legally, you and your mother, being in a two-bedroom hotel suite it's against the law in Florida." <laughs> So gives you an idea. So to have Leonard Bernstein go on television and saying that--he said something about what a strange name I have and why and it still doesn't make any sense because my mother's Hungarian, my father, black American soldier. But he then said, "I like to think that these kinds of international--" I don't know that he actually said marriage, but he might have. <laughs> He was so over-the-top. Can you imagine actually saying that, advocating an interracial? Basically you're saying it's okay to have an interracial relationship between a man and a woman. You could get shot for stuff. Frankly, you could get shot for that today. So that was a big deal. I think people forget because they made fun of him for the Black Panthers that he had…Was easy to poke fun at somebody like that, but this was a man who recognized his historical past. So anyway, that's something that doesn't get talked about so much.

Jo Reed: How did end up substituting for Glen Gould when he cancelled that performance with the New York Philharmonic in January 1963?

André Watts: In January of '63 I was in Philadelphia at the music school on a Tuesday morning and Carlos Moseley called. They called me into the office and said, "There's a phone call for you." And nobody ever called me. And it was Carlos. "Hello, Mr. Moseley, how are you?" I remember. And I can't imitate it. He had the most phenomenal, really heavy but beautiful, mellifluous, southern drawl. I think Carlos was from Georgia or South Carolina or something. Anyway, wonderful. Unmistakable voice. And he said, "Well," he didn't say Lenny. He did say, "Master Bernstein," although he called him Lenny. He said, "Master Bernstein and I were wondering if you'd like to come down and play the Liszt Concerto with us again on Thursday night and Friday afternoon. This is Tuesday morning. And I remember, I said, <laughs> "Well, I'll ask my mother." <laughs> Well, I had no choice. At least I had enough brains, I took it seriously. <laughs> "I'll ask her if she'll let me go." Right. So I went. And the reason that that became such a big deal--I've always had great luck in the big, important things in life. Small stuff goes wrong for me, but big things I'm been very fortunate in my existence. There was a newspaper strike. And if there had not been a newspaper strike, Time, Life, Ebony, all these magazines, would never have sent anyone to cover it. But they sent people just in case it was going to be a big deal, because was already a big deal that Glen canceled on the New York Phil, because Brahms first piano concerto was the last performance that Glen had done with Bernstein where Bernstein came out and spoke to the audience and said, "I disagree with this interpretation entirely, but I defend Mr. Gould's right to this interpretation, therefore I'm conducting it." Well, look, Bernstein is bigger than life. I'm sorry. That's what he was. He was just in every way bigger than life. Bigger than his container and the air around him. So anyway, indeed, Glen had canceled. What is that?  So that's 48 hours. A little over 48 hours before. And so I got to play and all those, you know, it was a big audience success. And so then I got the kind of press you could never have gotten, even for substituting for Glen Gould, because of the newspaper strike.

Jo Reed: Did Leonard Bernstein continue to influence you, was he a mentor?

André Watts: I barely saw Bernstein for the last 20 years of his life. So therefore I say, I don't know how much of a mentor. Certainly in many, many, many ways a role model for me for, it's a overused phrase but I don't know what else to say. Role model in the sense of absolute commitment to the performance and at the time of performance, he really didn't care about anything else. He didn't care what you thought of him, what you thought he looked like, what you were going to say, nothing. Only the performance at that moment. That was the only thing that mattered. So in January of '63 I did the substitution for Gould. Thursday night concert, Friday afternoon concert. Sunday night recording. And he recorded in one evening Schumann "Genoviva," Strauss "Don Juan," Liszt "Les Preludes" and my piano concerto. That's a lot of music. And so we recorded the concerto and basically I would say probably we played it through twice. And then he came to me and he said, "Look. We want to do from the marziale to the end," which is three-quarters of the way through the piece to the end. And he said, "Now, we have all the material we need." I had no sense of insert one, take one. I didn't know anything about recording and splicing. I know nothing. He said, "We have all the material we need and you never made the same mistake in the same place. So if you make a mistake, you play a wrong note, don't stop. It'll cost too much money if we stop and start again, and we can't over the time allotted."  And so he said, "So whatever you do, once we start, don't stop. No matter what kind of mistake you make, keep going."  And of course it was very easy for me to follow directions, especially from him-- absolutely-- as Maestro. "I heard you and I will do what you said without question. Without question and without quarrel."  So we start, right? And he starts the Marziale. Two bars into it, he's singing at the top of his lungs, ruining the take. Now, there was no one to impress. There was no audience. The players are not going to be impressed by this show of enthusiasm. He's not interested in impressing. He couldn't help himself. First of all, he was going for something. We were doing it again because he wanted a certain quality, and in order to get that out of himself, he lost himself, and he sang out loud. And then of course tiny, little, easy expletive came out of his mouth when he realized he'd ruined this thing, and we had to start again.

Liszt up and hot

André Watts: And for me, this was another kind of blessing, a kind of-- absolute proof of just force-of-nature music coming from inside him, and no, none of that--hey, there may have been wild exaggerations of everything, but they were purely exaggerations of what was actually real in him. So for me, this was the big thing about Bernstein. Plus the fact that then I went and I played this same piano concerto--and I mean with really great conductors. As I recall, they were great, and certainly-I mean, they were famous, which is not always the same thing. They don't always go together; I understand that. But I think they were great conductors. And I play the piece now better than I did then, because I practiced like crazy, and really-- it's the same piece. I played it sort of okay with Bernstein. I played it better, and the performance was never as good, and never as magical. And it took me a whole damn year--okay, I didn't play that many concerts. Maybe I only played six or eight concerts. But it took me a whole year to realize, "Yeah, no kidding, I mean, it wasn't you."  Everything he touched, he lifted up higher, to another level. I mean, he just had that--that same force of personality when you met him and you were taken by this aura. He had that when he made music. He just made everybody play better. And so it took me about a year, first of all, to recognize that, and then to try to--for myself. Selfishly. I don't mean I was trying to help somebody else-- but to try to do the same, to try to lift a performance and stop just playing for yourself. Try to make the piece better, the way he did somehow for everybody. So anyway, those are my memories of Bernstein.

Jo Reed So tell me, how did you do that?  How did you lift yourself? I'm interested in the kind of self-renewal that has to come to anybody who's had a sustained career in performing.

André Watts: Well, some of it I think really is not to your credit. Some of it you just have to really kind of genuflect—look, I'm being hyperbolic. I understand that. I'm sort of doing it on purpose. But the core of what I'm saying is anyway what I believe. It doesn't mean it's so, but I certainly believe it. You have to kind of get up every morning and genuflect and be grateful if it's your nature to be able to see it new all the time. I mean, it is a gift that's been bestowed on you if you-- really. I mean, look. You play Beethoven V, piano concerto, and there's an E-flat chord in the beginning. Really?  And so you played it, I don't know, 500, 1500 times?  And you go to restudy it and you think, "Well. But maybe there's no B-flat in the chord. Why?  What does that tell you?  It's actually E-flat/G, right?  Ah. So what does that mean for my B-flat when I play the B-flat?  Does it mean more?  Less?"  If you can do that without-- almost unbidden, if that just comes to you, that's a blessing, and that's not really to your credit. Then of course you have to-- once you recognize it, then you have to try to use it, take advantage of it and work on it, and you just have to hear it new all the time. And you have to, I think, hear the piece-- at least that's what I say to my students. I know that you know what it does, and what happens. And there are people in the audience who know what is coming. You have to play like we don't know that. You have to play like, "Oh my god, I thought he was going to, look where he went. <gasps>  What's that?  And what does that mean?  Wow."  You really have to just re-hear all the time. Try to remember what happened the first time you heard it. Weren't you a little surprised? Yeah. Sure. Unbelievable. So you have all this knowledge; presumably you studied the concerto a lot and you played it a lot. Now you use all that knowledge to go back and have that be the support and the underpinning for the enthusiasm and wonder and conviction you felt the first time you heard the piece. I think that even if you could only get a smidgen-- if I can only get a smidgen of that, that's just a-- you just can be grateful that-- you can even aim for that, if that enters your head.

Jo Reed: Are there composers that that happens for you more readily than others?

André Watts: More readily. <laughs>  Yeah, more easily. Schubert, first. Schubert is first in line. You know, my desert island composer would be Schubert. Probably in the simplistic, narrow-minded selfish sense, I will tell you that ---why?  Because-- he's probably my favorite composer because if I'm having a lucky day and I have played a Schubert piece and I've thought, "Well, it's not so bad. At least if Schubert were here, he wouldn't kick me."  So that was okay. That feels more like salve on the soul, balm for the soul, than if I had the same relatively positive experience with another composer or another piece. So therefore Schubert is my-- besides, it suits my-- you know that business which-- whenever I talk about Schubert, I'm compelled to say it's his journal-- it's Schubert's journal-- that this writing is from, where he says, "Every time I wanted to sing of joy, it turned to sorrow. And every time I wanted to sing of sorrow, it turned to joy." And if you think about that, that he recognized that in his own speaking, his own singing, his own expression, expressing, that's the poignancy that we feel from Schubert, that when he cries, it makes you smile, and when he smiles, it makes you cry. That poignancy is very compelling for me. I like it. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Are there composers who have grown in stature for you as your career has progressed who perhaps in the beginning you were less taken by but now you see them?

André Watts: Sure. And that doesn't mean that I necessarily play them. But for example, I mean, Stravinsky. I was never very interested in Stravinsky, but I'm not a total moron, so I have a kind of conventional acceptance of respect for Igor Stravinsky. He's a great man. But I mean, with the passage of time, it's a little bit more internalized, more real belief. And for me, of course, Bartok. Bartok. I was never a Bartok fan when I was young. What a really great composer. I mean, a really great composer. Jeez.

Jo Reed: You teach at Indiana University.

André Watts: Yes, I do. I do.

Jo Reed: Where you might know a good friend of the NEA's, jazz master David Baker?

André Watts: Oh sure. I see. He's doing great. He looks wonderful. He's always very elegant and gentle and busy and active and quite extraordinary. I'm always so happy to see him in the hallway. We see each other very often in the corridors. I think he does a lot of work on the floor above me, <laughs> above my studio. So we run into each other often, yeah.

Jo Reed: I sometimes wonder for musicians there's less of a demarcation between jazz and classical music than there are for civilians?

André Watts: You know what's fascinating? I've thought about it from time to time. It's come home to me. I think it's less common or less everyday occurrence, let's say in an airport, that a classical musician recognizes a jazz player and goes up to them, whereas it's quite common for jazz players to come up to classical musicians and say "hi." It's really amazing. So I think that there is a danger, for-- let me just talk about pianists since I'm a piano player. I should stay with the little bit that I know. I think that we classical pianists should remember that there's a danger of isolationism and being narrow-minded because of the kind of practicing and kind of listening. We would be better players if we listened more to different things. It would help our little narrow field, whereas jazz players are indoctrinated to listen to everything. It's a kind of part of the education at the beginning. That's not necessarily the case with classical players, and should be.

Jo Reed: Tell me about your students.

André Watts: Well, I have very few students, and they are very interesting people, and good players. They're varied. I mean, it's like some cross-section of humanity. Different people, different directions.

Jo Reed: Is there any one lesson you really try to impart to them?

André Watts: When I was quite young, one of my manager's associates said to me, he said, "You know, you should pick everyone's brain that you can, and when people say things to you, don't waste their time or your time by arguing with them. Take, take, take. You can discard later."

Jo Reed: That's great advice.

André Watts: It's brilliant, isn't it?

Jo Reed: It really is.

André Watts: That's real genius advice. You can discard anytime. Just because you listen to somebody tell you, "Oh no, young boy, play so-and-so-and-so." You go home and you can discard it. But you know, the nonresistant part of you of saying, "Oh, okay, I listened to this person," when you go home and decide to discard, you'll replay what they told-- there may be one little thing in there that will be very useful for you. And you discard everything else, he said. That's how you learn.

Jo Reed: And finally, we see audiences graying, especially for classical music, and large-scale orchestras in smaller towns closing down. In smaller cities, rather, not just small towns. And I'm just wondering what your thoughts are about that.

André Watts: I don't understand it and I don't have anything positive to say about that. I do have a little positive-- a question, but that's on the positive side. You know, I'm going to be 64. A real good example for me is I heard Rudolf Serkin play when I was 13, 14, 15, living in Philadelphia. That's a long time ago. At that time, the large percentage of his audience was gray-haired people. Now, they're dead. These gray-haired people who now come, let's say, to my concert can't be the same people who went to hear Rudy Serkin. So, I'm not so sure that it means--yeah, we may have a little bit less audience-- but I'm not so sure-- what it means is that-- I don't know-- late teens, early 20s is, for the general mass of the population-- not a time for classical music, and you get more of that population when they get older. I think that's a perfectly possible and reasonable. One of the dangers for classical music is that as-- look, the financial world is in trouble itself, and that permeates every other world that we live in, including the musical one, and that as orchestras have difficulty, the simple solution appears to be to stop being classical music orchestras. And I think this is a big mistake. You may come up with a weirdo gimmick that doesn't have anything to do with classical music, but what will happen is you will get the curiosity seeker for once or twice, who will not remain, and you will lose the people who are your patrons. So I think we have to be very careful in classical music not to look for too much carnival, too much circus. Try to stay open-minded about how to present the great music of Mozart and Brahms and Beethoven and Schubert, and Varese, and John Adams and Corigliano, etcetera. I don't mean just old masters. But I think we should be very careful. There is a place for everything…

Jo Reed: You're talking about the difference between drawing a crowd and building a community of classical music lovers.

André Watts: I think it's very difficult because it takes real will to say, "Yes, we'll develop this kind of community. We want to have a bigger community for our orchestra and classical music," which means sustained effort, not superficial, "Well, if we do two things like that, we can get this much money from such-and-such a grant for such-and-so."  No. "That might be great. We'll do that. But you know, we're not going to do the other grant because that other grant has no long-term meaning for us and we don't want to dissipate our energies. We'll do this one because we're going to follow that up. We're going to do two more of those concerts, for which we don't get any extra money, because this is a great project. This is a great direction for our orchestra to go in."  That way. That kind of thing. Which is I think very difficult. I mean, you have to think hard. You have to push and be willing. It's hard work.

That was pianist and 2001 National medal of Arts recipient, André Watts. You've been listening to Art works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts from Piano Concerto #1 In E Flat, composed by Franz Liszt performed by André Watts with the NY Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment. 

Excerpts from Liszt's "Transcendental Etude, number 10," performed live by André Watts in Avery Fisher Hall in 1985.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, playwright and director Aditi Brennan Kapil.

 To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

André Watts remembers the early years of his career. [39:41]