When Andre Watts talks, he's healthily opinionated and forthright in stating his beliefs.
But underlying much of his conversation is an avoidance of pretension: "I am speaking for myself," is a constant qualifier. And he's wary of the easy answer, the pat summary, even when it comes to characterizing his own playing.
"I'm a little bit nervous about artists who speak too readily about that. I once went to hear somebody play, an older colleague. This was a pianist who played the Schumann Concerto in the town that I was visiting. It was pretty awful playing, it was really unattractive."
Nevertheless, afterward Watts went backstage and did the gentlemanly thing: He kept his mouth shut. He greeted and congratulated the older pianist.
" 'Yes my boy, come in, come in,' he said," Watts recalls. " 'You see, the problem with your generation is you don't really know how to produce sound.'
"So I got this lesson in tone production. So I'm a little leery of speaking freely (about my own way of playing). Hey, I just try to play decently."
At a loss to explain the uniqueness of his technical gifts, Watts credits Leon Fleisher, his teacher at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, as a major influence.
"Leon always thought that quick passages, many notes at a fast rate of speed, really should be treated as melodies speeded up as opposed to rat-a-tat percussion stuff that just happens to have pitch.
"I'd like to believe that when I play a lot of quick passages, if they were slowed down they would have a whole form and structure on their own, which you just apprehend in passing because it goes so quickly."
Critics often mention the spontaneity of Watts' playing, his excitability on stage. He laughs at, but enjoys the image.
"I have enormously fixed generalized floor plans for all the pieces. The whole point of getting a floor plan and having a strategy is so the spirit can fly. It may sound like it's totally off the cuff, which frankly I think is a compliment, but does it sound, for that moment, inevitable? Then, that's perfect."
The 44-year-old pianist performs 90 to 100 concerts a year but recent problems with a pinched nerve, aggravated by a shoulder injury, forced him to cancel his concerts from July through September, including one at Ambassador Auditorium now rescheduled for April.
"It's much better," he says. He is not worried about his full schedule ahead, which includes an "Emperor" Concerto with Roger Norrington( and Andre Previn's concerto with the composer on the podium.
He says that life on the road has its problems--he has been away from home since Oct. 30 and won't return until Dec. 20--but he sees them as manageable.
"There's really no reason to walk onstage and tell the audience my eyeballs are on the ground because I haven't had much sleep and I'm jet-lagged and my bank account is overdrawn as an excuse. If you find that happening, you have got to fix it."
As for the repetition of programs from city to city, "that's more easy to control: Change your program! I'm notorious for making program changes, and I can't help it. I really do try not to do it."
Indeed, Watts has changed his program at least twice for his appearances in Orange County tonight and UCLA's Royce Hall Saturday. His latest choices are the "Wanderer" Fantasy, A-major Sonata, Opus 120 and "Klavierstucke," D. 946 by Schubert, Chopin's Second Sonata and three works by Debussy, "La plus que lente," "Danse" and "L'isle joyeuse."
He speaks cheerfully, initially, of his reviews. "The really interesting ones, of course, are the killer ones. You should read those, they're funny . . . at first. (But) in that moment when you read that you are some kind of a musical moron and that you should be hounded off the stages of classical music, well, it doesn't feel so good."
But, characteristically, he sees both sides of the situation.
"There's very little that's easier than for (the reviewer) to criticize the player. There's also nothing that's much easier than for the player to criticize the reviewer. Players usually forget the demands put on the reviewer."
Leonard Bernstein's name comes up, and Watts remembers the day "he handed me my career," when the 16-year-old pianist substituted for an ailing Glenn Gould upon the conductor's request.
"When (Bernstein) died, for me it was very weird. I was sitting in a hotel room in San Francisco and I was reading Oscar Levant's 'Memoirs of an Amnesiac.' (Levant) suddenly mentions Bernstein: 'I always had a great sense of humor about his ego, but he didn't.' And I read that sentence, put down the book, turned the radio on and there was the announcement he was dead.
"I was glad that the suffering was ended--he was doing a lot of suffering, apparently. His personality wasn't the kind that should have lived 10 years in retirement."
One thing he learned from Bernstein? "Try to not read reviews before breakfast."
\o7 Andre Watts plays music by Schubert, Debussy, Chopin and Ravel tonight at 8 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $8 to $25. Information: (714) 556-2787. \f7