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Magic That Can Only Happen Here

Crowds stream their way into Chenery Auditorium during the Gilmore Keyboard Festival. ©The Gilmore/Chris McGuire
Gilmore Festival aims to make Kalamazoo a ‘cultural destination’

What can a world-renowned keyboard festival learn from a Kalamazoo-area craft brewery?

Quite a bit, according to the Gilmore Keyboard Festival’s Pierre van der Westhuizen.

Van der Westhuizen (pronounced WEST-hay-zen), who became the festival’s new director in January, says the 27-year-old festival and piano competition and Bell’s Brewery have much in common. They are both renowned for their high quality, both are aiming for a broader reach, and both were born in Kalamazoo and, despite their growing renown, still call Kalamazoo home.

And just as Bell’s and the vibrant local microbrewery scene it inspired have made Kalamazoo a must-go destination for the craft brew crowd, van der Westhuizen believes the Gilmore Festival, which runs this year from April 25 to May 12, can have the same impact on music lovers.

“I want to create the Gilmore and Kalamazoo as this ‘cultural destination,’ not just across the country but across the world,” he says. “I want to create something that you never want to leave, and once it stops, you can’t wait for the next one. It’s just magical from the get-go.”

It’s not as if the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, often referred to as just “The Gilmore,” isn’t a known entity. Since it began in 1991, the biennial festival has grown from an eight-day celebration in Kalamazoo to an 18-day affair with more than 100 concerts, many in Kalamazoo but also in locations from Grand Rapids and East Lansing to Vicksburg and South Haven. The 2016 festival attracted more than 35,000 attendees to its classical, jazz and other keyboard concerts and events and brought nearly an estimated $4.2 million into the local economy.

Untapped potential

Those figures alone might justify bragging rights, but van der Westhuizen and the director who preceded him, Daniel R. Gustin, say when it comes to The Gilmore’s fame and reach, they see untapped potential.

“You are never satisfied until all our concerts are full,” says Gustin, who is serving as director emeritus as he transitions out of the leadership role after this year’s festival. “We get great support from the community and our audiences are loyal, but with 100 events in 18 days, that’s asking a lot of a community to go to all that.”

Which is why Gustin and van der Westhuizen see the world as their oyster. They believe the key to bringing global audiences to The Gilmore in Kalamazoo starts with bringing The Gilmore to more audiences around the globe.

Van der Westhuizen says technology, especially the ability to live-stream festival performances via the internet, will be pivotal in The Gilmore’s growth.

“Technology will be an incredibly powerful tool moving forward,” he says. “With technology we can leapfrog a bunch of obstacles, build an international network and get people hooked online. Once people in Vienna, London, Berlin or wherever tune in and see Murray Perahia and the whole lineup we have here, they will want to come here and explore what we and Kalamazoo have to offer. It is so surprising — all that is here.

“If you start that narrative around the broader picture of what Kalamazoo has to offer and that they should come here, stay awhile and explore other things, it makes that narrative bigger than just The Gilmore. That’s the way you create this cultural destination.”

For all it does, The Gilmore is a small nonprofit with a staff of 12 that operates from a smallish Midwestern town. Kalamazoo doesn’t have the same cultural cache as New York or San Francisco or New Orleans, but that doesn’t matter, says van der Westhuizen. He cites an example from his home country: the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, the largest arts festival in Africa. For two weeks in July, Grahamstown, which has a population of just under 70,000, hosts an annual festival that in 2017 attracted more than 202,000 people.

“The rest of the year you wouldn’t know it or believe that this little Grahamstown can do this,” says van der Westhuizen. “It’s all about the will of the community and connecting in the right way to the right partners. The other thing, too, is this idea of creating an immersive experience that’s more than attending a concert — it’s the food preceding the concert, the hotels surrounding it, the bed-and-breakfasts surrounding it, and whatever else the city or area has to offer surrounding it. All of these experiences matter.”

Indeed, Gustin was equally ambitious when he came to head The Gilmore in 2000, after spending 30 years as the assistant manager of the Boston Symphony and manager of the annual Tanglewood Music Festival. He was the force behind doubling the length of the Gilmore Festival and extending the festival’s reach by adding venues in other West Michigan communities. He also worked to build the international excitement and esteem surrounding the organization’s Gilmore Artist Award, which is given every four years to a contemporary pianist whose developing career can benefit from the $300,000 prize that comes with the honor.

“I think one of our significant achieve-ments is that we’ve established the Gilmore Keyboard Festival as a national and inter-national institution,” Gustin says. “It’s become better known in the last 15 to 18 years, and that’s not altogether what I’ve done. I’ve had a great staff, and the pioneers — the early managers and board members — who got this thing going had it positioned to become more respected and better known.”

Connecting with new audiences

Becoming better known and appreciated by those in The Gilmore’s hometown, however, has been an ongoing effort for the organization. While the piano world may know that it is a big deal when artists like Kirill Gerstein, Emanuel Ax and André Watts all perform at the same festival, as they did in 2014, that admiration doesn’t always extend to the less keyboard-savvy. So in its off-season — the year between the biennial festivals — The Gilmore works ardently on outreach and education efforts.

It hosts two ongoing public concert series, the Gilmore Piano Masters and the Gilmore Rising Stars. The Piano Masters Series presents recitals by such piano world luminaries as Sir András Schiff, Murray Perahia and Hélène Grimaud.

Van der Westhuizen says locals may not realize how extraordinary these concerts are. “I have been blown away by the kind of musicians that come here. These are the artists that would normally perform in New York, L.A. and San Francisco and then go home, but they come to Kalamazoo. For somebody like Murray Perahia to come here — he’s only going to perform in New York and here on his tour — that’s crazy. That’s incredible. We should not miss that opportunity.”

Equally, audiences may witness the next great piano master through the Gilmore Rising Stars series, which presents talented young pianists before their presumed international breakthroughs. For example, Gerstein, the 2010 Gilmore Artist and one of this year’s festival performers, made his Kalamazoo debut in 2002 as part of the Rising Stars series.

“I think that it’s very valuable and important in the off years to keep people engaged and have Gilmore on their mind through such things as the Rising Stars and Piano Masters series,” says van der Westhuizen. “I would also like to explore offering more free community concerts, and with every one of those concerts we should have a buildup to the event, and for days after. That’s where the education comes in.”

Education is critically important in cultivating new audiences, says Gustin, and The Gilmore does much to reach young music students. Its annual daylong KeysFest provides area piano students from first through 12th grade with workshops, clinics and one-on-one instruction with professional pianists and educators. Every July, the Gilmore Piano Camp is held at the Sherman Lake YMCA, combining an immersive piano education experience with the camp’s natural environment and outdoor activities. In addition, the organization’s Piano Labs, held September through May, include group piano lessons for elementary students, students with disabilities and those housed at the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home. And during the biennial festival, a large number of concerts featuring festival performers are offered in local schools.

“Arts in public schools are really taking a beating and becoming less and less important in the school curriculum, and that’s not a good thing at all,” says Gustin. “We’d like to make more connections there, especially in minority communities less served by institutions, to introduce them to music, and it doesn’t have to be Beethoven.”

Van der Westhuizen agrees. “Education is one of the most important things we do, especially as funding for music education in schools dwindles,” he says. “I think we have to be 100 percent immersed in that.”

This educational effort also extends to grownups. The Piano Labs, for example, include group piano lessons for adults. In addition, The Gilmore offers adult enrichment courses through Western Michigan University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

The festival, however, is still one of the organization’s largest educational opportunities. In addition to performing, festival artists teach master classes and give talks. The festival also features a series of family concerts and performers travel to schools, libraries and other venues across the region to present concerts and programs for babies to high-schoolers.

“We offer programs aimed at developing an interest in music in young people, and our family concerts do that in a big way,” notes Gustin.

Ambassadors abroad

This local education can also have an impact on a global level, says van der Westhuizen.

He notes that the region has a number of corporations such as Stryker, Mann+Hummel, Parker Hannifin and Fabri-Kal that have overseas facilities, partners and connections. Van der Westhuizen says he sees opportunities for The Gilmore to capitalize on these international ties.

“We have companies here with a strong international presence, and by getting the community to realize what we have at The Gilmore , they can become advocates for The Gilmore and Kalamazoo wherever they go,” he says.

The Gilmore also is working to strengthen awareness of the organization stateside. When the Gilmore Artist Award is announced every four years, a public concert is performed by the artist in New York City. Gustin and van der Westhuizen say part of the reason for this is to take advantage of the proximity to national media outlets such as the New York Times and National Public Radio that will cover the announcement and share it with global audiences. Van der Westhuizen says he would like to have more Gilmore events in other major cities.

“It’s branding,” he says. “Since we are international, it means we have to be in other markets to get our brand out there. There we can say, ‘Did you love this? Then come experience the total festival in Kalamazoo.’ That’s the point of it.”

Kalamazoo, after all, is The Gilmore’s home, he says.

“I use the beer analogy — the Bell’s analogy,” he says. “You may be able to find Bell’s beer in every grocery store, but their home is right here. The festival will always remain here. The Gilmore Award is based here. This is it.

“It’s a sort of magic that can only happen here.”

Marie Lee

Marie is the editor of Encore Magazine and vice president of Encore Publications, Inc. She’s been at the helm of Encore since October 2011. Marie’s background covers the gamut; she’s a former newspaper reporter and editor, a public relations and marketing communications professional, and book editor and collaborator. As Encore’s editor, she is dedicated to bringing the best things about the greater Kalamazoo community to the magazine’s readers.

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