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'His life was a grand adventure': Friends, colleagues remember former Utah Symphony pianist Ardean Watts

Salt Lake City — When Jaren Hinckley showed up early to his music theory class, Ardean Watts was sitting at the front of the classroom listening to Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”

The professor had the music playing over the sound system in his University of Utah classroom, and when the bell rang, he allowed the music to play for a few moments longer.

With tears streaming down his face, Watts looked at his students and told them the great composer had died.

That was Oct. 15, 1990, and Hinckley has loved Bernstein’s “Mass” ever since.

“His love of music is what always impressed me, and his dedication to music,” said Hinckley, a music professor at Brigham Young University. “He cared. He cared about music and he cared about people.”

Ardean Walton Watts died July 21 at 89. During his lifetime, he was inseparable from the Utah performing arts scene and served in many capacities. In 1956, he was hired by his close friend Maurice Abravanel to be the Utah Symphony’s pianist, and in 1968 also assumed the role of associate conductor before retiring from the symphony in 1979. He was a longtime music professor at the University of Utah, founder of the university’s opera company, music director for Ballet West and chair of Utah's ballet department.

Watts established himself as a faithful concertgoer as well as a fierce advocate for the arts — an advocacy so deep that he once chained himself to a piano in downtown Salt Lake City to protest cuts in arts funding, according to the Deseret News. With a public memorial being held in Watts’ honor Saturday, Aug. 19, his friends, students and colleagues reflected on experiences and shared fond memories.

A passionate professor

In 1973, Lani Poulson took the hardest class of her academic career. She had previously been a chemistry major at Utah, but even the challenges of calculus and physics paled in comparison to music theory with Watts.

Watts possessed a palpable passion for music, a feeling Poulson described as “a childlike wonder” that only seemed to grow with age.

“Ardean was a very special person to me,” she said. “He was one of the most important teachers that I had at the U. It was like he was opening a door, and he had these wonderful, sparkly eyes and an enthusiastic smile, and he would just beckon you to go through the rigors of the class, to go through this open door into a really magical world of what music is.”

Poulson said all the skills she developed during the course proved to be fundamental to her future success as an opera singer.

“The way he taught was so much more than pedantic, teaching students music theory,” she said. “He taught me to listen. … It wasn’t just about learning (music), but understanding it.”

More than a decade later, Watts continued to share these skills with his students. Hinckley recalled how one semester, the beloved teacher invited his entire class to his house to listen to composer Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in its entirety— at midnight. Surrounded by snacks, blankets and pillows, the students became immersed in a musical experience that ended around 4 a.m.

“It was wonderful,” Hinckley said. “I just remember being sort of amazed that a teacher would do that, have us not only in his home, but in the middle of the night. I thought it was quirky, but a fun, exciting thing to do, and (the music) clearly meant so much to him.”

A lifelong learner

Unruly Things from RadioWest on Vimeo.

Watts was a professor for more than 30 years, but he spent his entire life embracing opportunities to learn. In addition to his extensive knowledge of music theory, he developed proficiency in electronic synthesizers, became a specialist on mushrooms, began learning Mandarin Chinese at the age of 83 and even became an unofficial greeter at City Creek Center when it first opened.

"When he’d get interested in things, good Lord, get out of his way!” said Ed Thompson, a friend of Watts' who served as the University of Utah music department chair. “He just did it full blast!”

Thompson especially realized this during the summer of 1986. As director of the university’s A Cappella Choir, he was collaborating with Watts and the ballet department on a production of “Carmina Burana.” At the time, the Macintosh computer had only been around for a couple of years, and Watts, with the help of his son Milton, took on the laborious task of learning how to input the orchestration for “Carmina Burana” to computer.

“I thought the computer was going to run, and I was just going to conduct and stay in sync with the computer,” Thompson recalled. “But Ardean said, ‘I want you to conduct the computer; I don’t want the computer to conduct you!’”

The night of the performance saw both Thompson and Watts dressed in suits and walking down the center aisle of Kingsbury Hall before stepping into the orchestra pit. Thompson stood tall with his baton, while Watts sat in front of a computer, clicking the mouse to the rhythm of Thompson’s conducting.

“People didn’t know what to make of it,” Thompson said with a laugh. “It was the first time the Macintosh had been used for something like that. … Ardean was just always exploring. This is the way he was. There’s absolutely nothing like him.”

“He had no fear of hard work, and I don’t think he had fear of failure,” Poulson said. “It was all a grand adventure. His life was a grand adventure. … I think what all of us could learn from Ardean was always to have a sense of curiosity. He never lost that. … ‘Oh no, you can’t do this!’ was not in his vocabulary.”

But there were rare occasions when his pursuits were given limits — for instance, when it came to roller-skating.

A roller-skating riot

For a time, Watts could often be spotted flying past students, bikes and cars on his way to and from the University of Utah.

“He was intentionally audacious,” said Pam March, a close friend of Watts’. “He’s always been somewhat portly, and you don’t think of him as an athletic figure, so the sight of him roller-skating with all his might down 4th South was hilarious.”

“He roller-skated from his home to the university every day,” said Thompson. “You’d come driving up there, (and) there was Ardean roller-skating on the sidewalk. It was just kind of a campus joke. Everywhere he’d go he would roller-skate.”

At this time, Watts was still with the Utah Symphony, and when the group traveled to San Francisco for a concert, Watts opted to bring his skates along for the ride —much to Abravanel’s dismay.

Using his free time to skate up and down the hills of San Francisco, Watts eventually ran into some trouble when he lost control and had to grab onto parking meters, signs and anything else in his path that would soften the blow.

“He managed to stop, but he got damaged pretty seriously in the process,” Thompson recalled. “(And) Maurice Abravanel went ballistic, (telling him) ‘Never again are you to roller-skate when we go on tour! Never again!’”

But the incident didn’t end there.

The following year, Abravanel had it written into Watts’ contract that he couldn’t roller-skate, according to Carolyn Abravanel.

“Oh, (Maurice) was furious! Ardean was no longer allowed to roller-skate across the Golden State Bridge, (let alone his own) backyard,” she said with a laugh.

And then, more seriously, “Maurice depended on him, (and) Maurice was his mentor. Ardean was a dear, cherished friend to my husband. … It’s just hard for me to believe he’s gone.”

A lasting legacy

For many, describing Watts in a single word or phrase is an impossible feat.

The expression “larger than life” comes close, but even that cliché fails to capture the vast range of talents and interests that filled the man’s life with adventure.

“(Maybe) ‘larger than the universe,’" Thompson joked. “Ardean’s universe was larger than most people’s. He’s the most colorful man you could ever expect to meet. Sometimes controversial, always interesting. I’ve never met another person quite like him.”

And when he wasn’t teaching, attending a concert, roller-skating or pursuing an unusual interest, Watts could be found in his home on Stratford Avenue, where he and his wife, Elna Elaine Brown, raised eight children who were also encouraged to pursue their passions, according to March.

“Whenever you mention Ardean, I think you also need to mention Elna,” she said. “Because here was this high-flying brilliant man, and Elna raised all the children, kept a stable home and kept him on a long tether so his kite could fly high and yet be pulled in and brought back to a safe spot. So she was a wonderful, wonderful part of that dynamic duo, and I don’t think she’s even aware of how beloved she is for allowing Ardean to be who he was.

“When I think of Ardean dying, I don’t think of it in the sense that he’s at an end,” she added. “I just think he’s found more brilliant things to do. … I’m not as sad about his passing because I know that if there is another life, he’s fully engaged.”

Note: There will be a celebration of life for Watts on Saturday, Aug. 19, at 2 p.m. The memorial will take place at the University of Utah's Libby Gardner Hall, 1375 Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City.