Andre Watts Dazzles With a Spirited Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2

Pianist Andre Watts
Pianist Andre Watts
Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Pianist Andre Watts received a rousing standing ovation after his performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Houston Symphony on Friday night. Concert goers popped to their feet almost as soon as Watts hit the last note and the emotional response (and extended applause) was well deserved.

During what was the first of three performances he gave with the Houston Symphony over the weekend, Watts alternately attacked and caressed the piano. The concerto begins with a few notes ringing on the piano; rather than starting quietly and building to a crescendo over the span of the piece, Watts' playing was stirring from the first note. That he was able to reach an even higher crescendo is a testament not only to Watts talent, but conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada's deft handling of the orchestra and his exploration of subtleties in the score. There are moments for the woodwinds to shine (notably clarinetist Thomas LeGrand), which added to the depth of the performance.

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It's easy to hold Watts, a classical music superstar, to a higher standard. The American pianist was only 16 when Leonard Bernstein tapped him to step in for the legendary Glenn Gould at the last minute for a concert in 1963. Watts performed magnificently in what was an auspicious start to a brilliant career. With 51 years of achievements and accolades to his credit, Watts is expected to be phenomenal at every concert. We don't know that Watts is always phenomenal; but we do know that he is always better. His playing is always richer, more textured, more subtle and filled with new colors.

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Rachmanioff's Piano Concerto No.2 has long been in Watts' repertoire, but rather than being staid or routine, his performance on Friday was lively and enthusiastic. As was, appropriately, the audience's response.

The world premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank's Karnivalingo opened the evening. A Rice alum who previously composed a viola concerto for the Houston Symphony, she was introduced onstage by Orozco-Estrada. Frank, whose mother is from Peru, told the audience Peruvian folk music influenced the piece, which was rhythmic and quick. Though short, it was bright and vibrant. Orozco-Estrada promised to showcase more new works in the coming seasons.

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