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Old friends, Sir Andrew Litton and Andre Watts perform with Minnesota Orchestra
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Pianist Andre Watts poses with his good friend Andrew Litton. The two will play together at the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest. (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
Two good friends will be making great music over the weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra. Andre Watts is the featured pianist in a program tonight conducted by Andrew Litton, the artistic director of Sommerfest. The performance is another chapter in the long history of their friendship and musical collaboration. One of the first pieces Watts and Litton played together was MacDowell Piano Concerto No. 2. They'll play it again this weekend.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Andre Watts and Andrew Litton met 21 years ago.

"It is one of the most magical stories of my life," says Litton.

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Image Testing pianos

In 1983, he was in his first season as the assistant conductor under Mstislav Rostropovich with Washington's National Symphony. But one day he got a phone call that changed his life.

"It's the president of the orchestra, who says, 'Rostropovich is very sick. You're going to be conducting this week,' says Litton. "And so I went into hysteria because suddenly I'd gone from just being a little assistant conductor who occasionally got to do a children's concert, to getting to conduct -- I was thereby making my major orchestra subscription series debut with none other than Andre Watts," he said.

Watts, already a superstar, could have bowed out of the performance, but he didn't. He said he'd heard good things about Litton and had no qualms about performing under the direction of the young talent. As a result the two became fast friends.

"It's sort of funny to be saying it in front of each other, but it is true," says Watts. "It is sort of a blessing when you have a colleague that you respect and admire and then find that you can have respect and admiration also for the human being, not only for the musician and then you become friends."

It is sort of a blessing when you have a colleague that you respect and admire and then find that you can have respect and admiration also for the human being, not only for the musician and then you become friends.
- Andre Watts

Since then Watts has played with nearly every orchestra Litton has led for the past two decades. For example, Litton has been music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for the last 11 years. Watts has played with the symphony 10 times during that period. The two seem to end up playing together somewhere about twice a year. The depth of their friendship was demonstrated two years ago after Watts suffered an aneurism. He had a remarkable recovery and Litton invited him to play less than two months later. Watts says there are advantages if the soloist is a friend of the music director.

"Look," Watts says, "I don't think anybody knew, and I certainly didn't know whether I was really I was going to be able to play those concerts. And if Andrew hadn't leaned on all the appropriate people, they would have said, hey we can't take that risk. We have a business to run here. We've got to put on concerts."

The show was a success and Litton says since the aneurism, Watts has been playing better than ever. But before Watts' comeback was assured, he played a practical joke on Litton that made the conductor a bit nervous during a pre-concert meeting.

"So we had the usual sit-down in my office. He's sitting at the piano and he starts playing his first entrance and it's -- it's horrible. It's like - the hair on the back of my neck sort of stood up and I was like, oh my gosh, he's lost it. And then he just burst out laughing. It was the cruelest joke," Litton says..

"I wish I had a photo of his face," Watts laughs. "It was a combination of absolute disgusted horror and such pity, you know, like 'Oh you poor guy! What happened?" This weekend marks Watts' and Litton's first performance together in Minnesota. Tonight, they'll perform the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos. And, of course, the MacDowell Piano Concerto Number Two.

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