IT HAS BEEN almost 30 years since a young pianist rode the Liszt E flat concerto to national fame, his long fingers flashing over the keys, body hunched or upright, foot stomping the pedal and his 16 years pouring out the exuberance of youth.
On national television three weeks later as a substitute with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, Andre Watts was an overnight sensation in 1963, off on an international career that begged some skepticism: Would he fade away like so many others?
Baltimoreans can again hear Watts' resounding answer at 8:15 p.m. Thursday and Friday when he rejoins the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the first time since 1983 to play the Brahms Concerto No. 2 in B flat major. Guest conductor Hans Vonk guides the 50-minute piano marathon at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
The frequently praised Watts interrupted his morning practice in Fort Worth, Texas, recently to talk by phone about a career that remains a blur of one-night concert stands but still excites the 45-year-old pianist. Clearly, after three decades, performing music for others is still "what it's all about," as he has told others.
"I am very grateful and thankful that there is a public that likes me," Watts said. "They may not be as wild as before, but as long as I'm in a performance career, I'm thankful.
"The business we're in tends to push certain people and not push other people. That's normal. Some artists continue because of this public interest. I've always been very lucky and don't take it for granted."
Asked about his undimmed enthusiasm, visible at the keyboard as well, Watts said, "I just play, it's certainly not an effort.
"With the passage of time there are differences. The performance doesn't necessarily get easier, but you become more comfortable with the music. The Brahms piece has a special place for me. I played it in Berlin in the 1960s.
"As I get older, it's easier for me to clarify what's influencing me.
"I stopped reading the critics. It's self-preservation. I feel better now. I should have stopped 20 years ago. I remember the first time I played the Hollywood Bowl, it was with Bernstein. I stayed up all night waiting for the reviews, reading, watching TV. I ran out to get a paper. There was a big headline about Bernstein and a smaller one, 'Watts' melodic line withers on the vine.' "
Watts laughed. Yet he still learns, this man who began lessons at 7 with his Hungarian-born mother and later with Baltimore pianist Leon Fleisher at Peabody Institute by commuting from New York. "It's good to be back," he said.
The Romantic specialist has been influenced by the pianists Schnable, Richter and Rostropovich. He listens to recordings. He reads (a current favorite is a collection of the world's great ideas produced for World War II soldiers).
And he listens to colleagues. "It's simpler now if you encounter musicians you respect. A conductor may say, 'I was wondering, have you ever considered doing this?' and he gives you a musical reason and I say, 'Let's try it.' "
This year, the pianist, a bachelor who lives in Suffern, N.Y., plays dates like Portland, London, Chattanooga, Palm Springs, Fort Lauderdale, New York. "I don't mind that kind of life," he said. "I'm not crazy about packing and unpacking, but the life's OK. I go on the road and after a while it's time to go home. Then, after a while, it's time to play again."