At five minutes before 8 the last of a small-city throng trickle into this spacious, restored antique hall. They stare at a lone, spotlit Steinway concert grand flanked by life-size oils of Washington and Lincoln. They pass the time surveying high ceilings and oversized chandeliers. It is a full house; sedate but ready and waiting.

Backstage and down two flights sits the evening's performer. At age 36 he is considered - even by his detractors - one of the most technically able pianists alive.

He is far from being sequestered in creative solitude.

''How's the maple syrup running this year, Wilfred?'' Andre Watts tosses the question to one of the nine people who have converged on his small dressing room. It's a family reunion of sorts: A longtime friend has brought her newborn granddaughter and in-laws to visit. The pianist straightens his white silk bow tie with slender, strong hands. Three minutes left.

''Real well, Andre. We're about a thousand gallons down from last year. But then again, there's still three feet of snow keeping us from getting out there.''

''You'll need a set of snowshoes to get the rest,'' Mr. Watts laughs. He adjusts his white gabardine vest and reaches out to tickle the three-month-old baby's chin. As Grandmother aims a Polaroid at grandchild, crowd noise filters in over an ancient intercom. Oblivious, the gathering chatters away.

The backstage scenario pops this reporter's balloon of preconceptions. Where is the last-minute warm-up, the moments of contemplative silence, the scores of music to be pored over? Where is the hand wringing, the pacing? Is this merely a man going to work, a short 8 to 10 instead of 9 to 5?

In minutes, he will be centerstage pounding out a program of some of the most demanding pieces in the classical literature. One, a Beethoven sonata, he hasn't performed in two years. This concert is his chance to iron out any wrinkles before he plays the same program (Liszt, Schubert, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin) two days later for a more critical audience in Boston.

''Just about ready, Andre?'' the promoter sticks his head around the corner. ''We've got a good house tonight.''

Watts goes upstairs, and cracks the stage door to take a look. He confides the need to ''prove to himself'' he can play this sonata. A test of his palms shows no sweat.

''Oh, it's there,'' he says. ''But I'm fortunate; I sweat on the backs of my hands.'' His eyes close: ''Deeyah tum tum deeyah.'' One last verbal run-through of the Beethoven sonata's key phrase is punctuated with a shake of his head.

Watts is booked four seasons in advance when concert attendance is waning. Apart from appraisals of artistry - which are subjective - supply and demand put Watts among the world's five most sought-after pianists, measured by engagements in the major halls and with the major orchestras of the world. His fee reflects this: $12,500 to $15,000 is standard for a recital, slightly more or less for orchestral dates.

This night in Worcester, Mass., is one of more than 120 concerts he will play this year and every year as far as he can see into the future. (''Maybe in 10 years, I'll drop to about 85,'' he says.) As it has for 20 years, his concert schedule will take him to virtually every corner of the globe.

The promoter reappears: ''Ready when you are.'' The house lights dim; Watts makes his entrance.

Once onstage, he is a one-man musician-mime. As his hands caress the keys, his face mirrors the music. His childlike delight can't be concealed, and his exuberance seems to conjure more out of the music.

He has been criticized for excess: His shoulders undulate; his head bobs, often zooming down to remain suspended a hair's breadth above the keys; he juts his jaw, purses his lips, stomps his left foot. Although he tries hard to suppress a hum, those in the front seats can hear it continuously - and occasionally those in the last row, balcony.

''He plays out of his body. That's what excites people,'' says composer-conductor Gunther Schuller, who has worked with Watts dozens of times. ''Out of inner resources both physical and emotional beyond just what the mind can analytically, intelligently understand. It is something amidst his emotions and heart, something subconscious and subliminal - many people don't understand this.''

As Watts will explain later, this is not intentional theatrics or a conscious striving for effect. He is so given to the music that he can't help showing it.

As the critics explain later, it is all part of the personal style that makes an event of a Watts concert: ''The electric feeling,'' says the New York Times's Harold Schonberg, ''that occurs only when an important artist is at work.''

Watts's first big chance was in January 1963, when Leonard Bernstein introduced him to the nation at a televised young people's concert. ''When I heard him, I flipped,'' said Bernstein. The audience flipped, too. He played a very demanding Liszt E-flat piano concerto with such spectacular virtuosity and passion that CBS network executives were buried in an avalanche of mail from all parts of the country. They could recall no similar response to any performance of classical music.

Three weeks later Glenn Gould, scheduled soloist for the Philharmonic's regular subscription concerts at Lincoln Center, fell ill. Bernstein called on Watts, but the subscribers groaned at the announcement of the last-minute substitution. By the time he had reached the final chord, there was an instant ovation. An ecstatic demonstration shook Philharmonic Hall for 15 minutes.

Bernstein gave the 16-year-old a bear hug center stage and the men of the orchestra put down their instruments and rose to their feet. The story made wire-service headlines all around the world.

As the cameras were still being rolled out of Lincoln Center that evening, the teenager was faced with an awesome task: living up to such auspicious promise.

As the concerts since have proved, and the current performance here will help explain, he has done that and more: At 36, he has achieved a worldwide stature unequaled by any pianist his age. Even those who criticize his playing recognize him as one of the true star-quality ''sell-out guaranteed'' phenomena in the classical ranks. A few say he will be mentioned in the same breath as the great players of this century. Most agree he is a bona fide member of today's virtuoso heavyweights, a club whose membership's median age would surpass his father's.

Backstage after the concert, Watts revels in a crush of admirers. His crisp tie has wilted. A stream of sweat from his temple accentuates his shaving line. A genuine ebullience greets the throng.

''It was so beautiful, Mr. Watts,'' says a young girl. ''I couldn't see your hands, but watching your face made it all worth it.''

''Mr. Watts, I saw you 10 years ago aboard the Rotterdam when they had to nail the piano down.''

''Oh, please Mr. Watts, you must record the Liszt.''

A young man confesses he needs help in memorizing notes. ''So do I,'' says Watts. ''But remember, don't think you have trouble and don't think you can't use nonmusical techniques to help. If you must remember the low G-sharp as 'fifth black note from the bottom,' fine. Don't let anyone scare you out of remembering it that way.''

Watts up close is as irrepressibly animated as he is on stage. He speaks smoothly and fast in a resonant, authoritative baritone. At 5 feet 9 inches, he has a medium build and dark complexion (he is the son of a black American GI and a Hungarian mother). Eyes of fire and ice dominate his face - the effect dictated by his mouth: When he smiles, his eyes possess the warm gleam of a beneficent monarch; when not, the same eyes chill with a cold, intellectual stare.

He is clearly delighted to meet, shake hands, hug, kiss, discuss, and reminisce with every last fan. Despite having just expended energy of athletic proportions, he seems ready to outlast all comers.

The warmth felt by his fans backstage is also felt by his colleagues around the globe.

Gunther Schuller: ''What I admire most - and what is so unusual in this field - is a personal integrity and honesty as well as artistic integrity. With Andre, there is no sense of egomania or the endless striving for adulation and endless career to the exclusion of everything else. When he plays, it is my great pleasure to accompany him.''

International Artist Series' John Murdock, for years a promoter of internationally acclaimed artists: ''He is heavily involved with his career in music but knows what is going on in other fields, so you can talk to him on any level; he is a phenomenal gourmet who knows about etiquette and socializing yet he is a loner; he enjoys sports yet he practices tremendously. He's elegant yet he can show up with dungarees and shades and say 'Hey man, what's happening?' If you stack up the personalities in the music business, Watts leaves them all in the dust.''

Saturday morning after the concert, a review appears in the Worcester Telegram. It reads like a dictionary of superlatives: ''Stunning,'' ''marvelous, '' ''spellbinding.'' Watts sleeps late and won't read the reviews until weeks later. ''Quite frankly, none of us really cares what they write after we're 35, '' Watts says. ''The place where critics really do damage is at the beginning of someone's career.''

Sunday's showdown approaches - between himself and the Beethoven sonata. Reviews aside, last night's performance tells him he must work on a more controlled entrance to the opening presto movement. There will be time to practice on the upright Steinway he has rented for his hotel suite. As he has done for years, he carries an old beach towel which will soften the sound when he places it between hammers and strings.

Part of the day will be taken up by the media. This Boston-area concert visit includes a live radio interview with local classical music personality Robert J. Lurtsema. The questions are familiar:

* On growing up black: ''When I was young, I was in the peculiar position with my school chums of not being white and not being black, either. Somehow I didn't fit in very well at all.''My mom said two things, 'if you really think that you have to play 125 percent to a white's 100 percent for equal treatment, it's too bad. But fighting will not alter it.' And, 'If someone is not nice to you, it doesn't have to be automatically because of your color.'

''These kinds of advice have taught me that when I'm in a complex personal situation, I don't have to conclude it is a racial thing. Therefore, I think I have encountered fewer problems all along the way. The more subtle things in interpersonal exchange are, first of all, never provable as racial, anyway. So it's a waste of time.''

* Quaker, public, and parochial schooling in Philadelphia: ''Yeah, I was obstreperous and got kicked out of class. I saw one of my teachers later who told me, 'You were impossible. Everyone else went home and released energy on the streets. You went home and practiced and let it all out in class.' ''

* On being a child prodigy: ''I've never been stuck with the prodigy label. I was first introduced to the piano at age four and didn't take to it at all. After my mother bought me a violin and I didn't like that either. So I went back to the piano about age 6. I was not a concertizing child. I had some concerts, but I always considered a prodigy to be doing 15 or 20 concerts on the road.''

After the interview, the pianist must rush home and change clothes for a photo session. Then he can relax for a while, watching a tennis match on TV, before being interrupted by this reporter to fill in the blanks of the Watts story.

An only child born in Nuremberg, Germany, Andre Watts's earliest memory is of his mother playing Strauss waltzes on an elegant Bluthner piano in Ulm where his father had been transferred. Mrs. Watts taught him for a year until another transfer moved the family to Philadelphia, where he attended parochial schools and the Philadelphia Musical Academy.

At 9 he auditioned, along with 39 others, for the Philadelphia Orchestra to play a Haydn concerto at a youth concert. But during the audition, Watts took a wrong turn and began playing the opening tune in the middle of the concerto. ''I counted the number of bars I had played and the number in the section I was supposed to be playing and caught up with my accompanist,'' he says. ''We were sure that I lost but the conductor - Ormandy assistant George Antek - said, 'He played well. If he gets lost that's one thing, but if he can recover like that, it means everything will be fine in the concert.' '' He was selected.

Andre's parents divorced when he was 13. He didn't see his father until years later, during a concert intermission.

''It was a very tough recital for me,'' Watts recalls. ''I was very nervous about the second half and so I said to the backstage man, 'Please, nobody to the door.' And they were sweet and protective, and at intermission the guy comes in the door and says 'Gee, Andre, I'm awfully sorry, but there's a man out here who says he's your father.' This guy comes to the door and I remember I really was so shocked. I hadn't seen him in 13 years. . .

He didn't look so big any more and he had glasses and we embraced. It was sort of strange. He had remarried. He came back at the end of the concert, but it was very rattling - I was shaking when I went back out. . .

''He had nothing against me. It was fine that I was going to be a pianist. But it didn't have all that much meaning for him. . . . It was the focus and thread of my life and he didn't have much to do with that.''

At 15, Watts practiced daily on a piano with 26 strings missing, on the second floor of an old house in West Philadelphia. He remembers an electric fan to combat the heat and a view of the pavement. And gangs; there were Irish, Italian, and black gangs in his neighborhood.

''Oh, sure I got beaten up all the time. It wasn't because I was black or a piano player. It wasn't 'Hey sissy, going home to practice? I'm going to beat you up first.' It happened to everybody. Some kid says, 'I don't like your nose, man, so I'm calling you out: 3:30.' ''By the age of 16, Watts had won all the auditions for young pianists with the Philadelphia Orchestra. No longer young enough to qualify he went to New York, auditioned at Carnegie Hall, and didn't make the finals. ''That was the low point,'' he said. ''I had no place to go.''

After discovering that Leonard Bernstein was holding auditions in New York, he applied, played first for Bernstein's secretary, then Bernstein, and the rest is history.

Immediately after his Gould substitution, Watts signed a contract to Columbia Records. Since that expired about six years ago he has been without a recording contract with anyone except for live recordings with CBS Sony in Japan.

''I sure want one, but nobody is offering,'' says Watts. He says this excludes offers limited to the works of Gershwin.The lack of recording contract brings up a crucial question about the Watts phenomenon: Is it capturable on disk?

One former critic now in orchestra management, says: ''As a piano playing mechanism, I don't know anybody who can do it better, in terms of speed and power and marksmanship. One of the real puzzles of his career to me is, given the amount of impact that he tends to make in public concert, that for years he hasn't had a major recording contract.''

Promoter Murdock theorizes that poor quality of engineering in the records Watts has recorded turns off those who know how vibrant he is in performance.

Others attribute it to a lack of musicianship. When there is no stage razzle-dazzle to heighten the experience, they say, the music alone falls flat.

''Serious listeners are looking to the performer for not only a clean rendering of what is on the page but some way to get below the surface,'' says another critic. ''I get a very superbly buffed shine and high-tech presentation of the surface (with Watts), but I don't get taken far on that journey back into the composer's head and heart.''

Still, those hopping to Watts's defense are easier to find than detractors. Among them, George Cleve, conductor of the San Jose Symphony: ''Typecasting Watts as a mindless virtuoso is just plain nonsense. I have always found him to be a beautiful, sensitive musician.''

And there is Harold Schonberg of the Times: ''I have heard the superficiality charge,'' he says. ''I just don't see it. He couldn't have gotten where he is unless he had a very strong sense of musicality.''

At 9:30 the next morning, Sunday, Watts is onstage trying out a German-made Steinway. ''The sound is too ugly,'' he says. There are problems with the action. His alternative is a more vibrant Baldwin upstairs at Symphony Hall. It is moved immediately. He practices three hours on a bare stage.

He taxis 10 blocks to the Ritz to eat and change, arriving back 15 minutes before his 3 o'clock concert.

This time he will be alone until concert time and there is a small upright to warm up on. The scores of Debussy, Chopin, and Beethoven are spread on the table.

Two hours later Watts finishes his third encore. A foot-stomping ovation has stopped. It is the sincerest form of flattery Symphony Hall audiences ever offer. He stands backstage greeting the crowd:

''It was so beautiful, Mr. Watts. Thank you so much.''

''Mr. Watts, I saw you eight years ago in Detroit. . .''

''Oh, please Mr. Watts, I must have a record of the Beethoven sonata.''

The pianist turns to reporter: ''That's the kind of proof I'm talking about. I proved I could do it, to myself and them. I knocked 'em dead, didn't I?''

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