According to his manager Linda Marder, Watts passed away from prostate cancer on Wednesday at his Bloomington home. In 2004, Watts became a member of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music faculty. He disclosed in 2016 that he had received a prostate cancer diagnosis.
Watts made his stage debut at the age of 10 at a kids’ performance on January 12, 1957, playing the first movement of Haydn’s Concerto in D major after winning a Philadelphia Orchestra student competition.
He studied under Genia Robinor and made his New York Philharmonic debut in a Young People’s Concert led by music director Leonard Bernstein on Jan. 12, 1963, a program televised three days later on CBS.
“Now we come to a young man who is so remarkable that I am tempted to give him a tremendous buildup, but I’d almost rather not so that you might have the same unexpected shock of pleasure and wonderment that I had when I first him play,” Bernstein told the audience. “He was just another in a long procession of pianists who were auditioning for us one afternoon and out he came, a sensitive-faced 16-year-old boy from Philadelphia … who sat down at the piano and tore into the opening bars of a Liszt concerto in such a way that we simply flipped.”
With the orchestra under Bernstein’s direction, Watts performed Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
“What Mr. Watts had that was exceptional was a delicacy of attack that allowed the piano to sing,” Raymond Ericson remarked in The New York Times.
Watts so pleased Bernstein that the conductor invited him to perform the Liszt concerto again at Philharmonic Hall a few weeks later in lieu of an absent Glenn Gould. He received a recording contract and rose to the top of the piano world within a short period of time.
On a 1987 episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood,” he observed, “Going to the piano and just gently playing and listening to sounds makes everything slowly seem all right.”
Born in Nuremberg, Germany, on June 20, 1946, to a Hungarian mother and a Black father who was in the U.S. Army, Watts moved with his family to Philadelphia.
He was nominated for five Grammy Awards and won Most Promising New Classical Recording Artist in 1964 for the Liszt concerto with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. He was nominated for a 1995 Emmy Award for Outstanding Cultural Program and received a 2011 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal from then-President Barack Obama.