It was a defining moment. That's how André Watts remembers his spectacular debut, at age 16, on a nationally televised New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert, performing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Leonard Bernstein, and returning soon afterward to fill in for an ailing Glenn Gould. "Playing for Leonard Bernstein was the most important event in my career," he says. "That's why I have a career!"
The time was January 1963, and after that Mr. Watts's career took off like a rocket. While his appearances with the New York Philharmonic number more than 40, he is returning this month for the first time in seven years. It is a reunion of sorts with his friend Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the Spanish conductor with whom he played the same work, Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 2, many years ago in Europe.
During his absence from the Philharmonic, Mr. Watts‹who currently plays 80 to 90 concerts each year‹suffered two major bouts of ill health: a life-threatening burst blood vessel in his brain in 2002, and surgery on a cervical disc and bone spur in December 2004 that caused him to lose motion in his left hand.
"I feel fine now," he confides. "I'm in pretty good shape. The brain thing was a near-death experience, and I feel cheated that I didn't have any tunnels with white lights." Did the experience change him? "I have a better perspective," Mr. Watts says. "All my life I've been very nervous before concerts, and I still am. But I haven't had any kind of panic attack." And he still loves live performance. "It's basically the music and the sound‹not the result, but the pleasure and enjoyment of going in and doing this piece again."
Lucy Kraus is a Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.