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The Gilmore Festival is Back

gilmore pierre van der weisthuizen

After a ‘wild ride’ for staff and heartbreak for musicians, the piano festival returns

With four years of anticipation instead of the usual two, artists, patrons and staff are gearing up for piano music to ring out throughout Southwest Michigan with the return of the Gilmore International Piano Festival this month.

The name of the biennial festival, which began as the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in 1991, was changed last summer when The Gilmore decided to replace the word “Keyboard” with “Piano,” to focus more on the instrument that’s at the heart of the festival. And, after having to cancel the 2020 festival due to Covid, Executive and Artistic Director Pierre van der Westhuizen couldn’t be more gratified to talk about once again making Kalamazoo the center of the international piano world for three weeks beginning April 24.

Referring to the last two years of uncertainty and hardship for The Gilmore and other arts organizations and artists, van der Westhuizen says, “Sometimes it feels like four days and some days like 40 years. It’s been a wild ride. My heart was breaking for all the musicians who lost so much.”

Asked about his favorite artists visiting this year, he likens the query to asking him to choose a favorite child. However, he says he is a longtime fan of classical pianist Emanuel Ax and is excited to welcome him back to the festival for a performance on April 30 at Chenery Auditorium.

“Apart from being an incredible musician, he’s a wonderful human being,” van der Westhuizen says, recalling past exchanges with the Grammy Award winner. “When my wife Sophie and I were piano students, we played in a master class for him. Years later, we went backstage to say hello after a concert, and he said, ‘Oh, the two tall South Africans!’ I was floored that this man who meets thousands of people remembered us.”

Van der Westhuizen is also looking forward to hearing jazz artist Herbie Hancock at Miller Auditorium on April 24. “(Hancock)’s never been here before, and (with him being) 80 years old, I feel super lucky to have him,” says van der Westhuizen. He also notes that financial support from the John Stites Jazz Artist Organization, named for the late Kalamazoo music engineer, helped the festival secure Hancock.

“It’s a beautiful convergence where donor intent came together so well with the mission of the organization.”

Area venues for this year’s festival concerts include Chenery, Miller and Battle Creek’s W.K. Kellogg auditoriums as well as pubs, theaters, church sanctuaries and college chapels. Nearly 100 current and budding international all-stars will be playing an unbeatable repertoire of classical, jazz and contemporary music as soloists and with others, and some of the musicians will be teaching and mentoring as well. Two-thirds of the pianists who were scheduled for the 2020 festival will play this year. In addition, films, toddler-friendly shows and a free interactive art exhibition of music and movement offer wide opportunities of engagement for everyone from the piano aficionado to the general music lover.

Rewarding top talent

While the festival provides performance opportunities for pianists of all ages, it is the career-making $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award, usually given every four years, that garners coverage in The New York Times and other international media. Eight Gilmore Artists have been named since the organization was founded, including piano luminaries Ingrid Fliter, Kirill Gerstein and Igor Levit. But because jurors on The Gilmore’s Artistic Advisory Committee, which chooses the Gilmore Artist, haven’t been able to see artists perform in the last two years, there will be no 2022 Gilmore Artist. The prize will return in 2024.

The anonymous Artistic Advisory Committee was, however, able to name Gilmore Young Artists for 2020 and again for this year. Maxim Lando and Misha Galant, the 2020 Young Artists, will play May 15 at Chenery Auditorium at the festival finale, which will also feature 2018 Young Gilmore Artist Wei Luo and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Presented biennially to promising U.S.-based pianists, the Gilmore Young Artist Award comes with a $15,000 stipend and $10,000 toward a commission of a new piano composition for the artist. Since 1990, 38 young pianists have been recognized.

Janice Carissa and Clayton Stephenson got the surprise call from van der Westhuizen telling them they had been named the 2022 Gilmore Young Artists.

“It was so wonderful. Janice just about jumped through the phone screaming,” says van der Westhuizen, who announced the honors in November. “Clayton was just speechless. I had to just say, ‘Send me a headshot, because you’re coming to the festival.’”

In addition to Carissa and Stephenson each giving two solo recitals during the festival, they will perform individually and together on May 5 at Kalamazoo College’s Stetson Chapel.

“The best part of my job is welcoming them to the Gilmore family of artists,” says van der Westhuizen.

That family will be expanding in the future because of the recent $8 million gift made by possible by Larry Bell, founder of Bell’s Brewing Co., to establish the Larry J. Bell Jazz Artist Award for jazz pianists. Bell, a longtime Gilmore supporter, is the current president of the Gilmore International Piano Festival Board of Trustees. The recipient of this award in his name will be chosen every four years by an anonymous committee and will receive $300,000 — a $50,000 cash grant to be used at the artist’s discretion and $250,000 to be disbursed over a four-year period for projects and activities aimed at enhancing the artist’s musicianship and career.

“We’re so grateful to Larry and thrilled to have another $300,000 prize to award,” van der Westhuizen says.

The first Larry J. Bell Jazz Artist will be announced in 2026.

In addition, the gift made possible by Bell will be used to establish the Larry J. Bell Young Jazz Artist Awards, which will bestow $25,000 every two years on promising American jazz pianists ages 22 and younger, beginning in 2024.

Bell’s support of The Gilmore goes beyond financial contributions and trustee duties. Bell accompanied van der Westhuizen to New York in January to shop for pianos for the festival at the Steinway factory in Queens. They were joined by 2006 Gilmore Young Artist Yuja Wang, who will perform on April 8 in a festival preview event at Chenery Auditorium.

“She helped us select Model B and Model D grand pianos, and she will inaugurate the Steinway Concert Grand Model D at her concert here,” says van der Westhuizen.

Getting it done

The festival’s economic impact on the region — expected to reach $4.3 million this year, a nearly 20 percent increase over the 2018 festival — and its cultural impact are thanks to the work of a staff of 27 full- and part-time professionals and instructors.

Weeks before the 2022 festival, Gilmore Director of Operations Anders Dahlberg was buried in correspondence, contracts and calendars that help him organize the artists, technology, hospitality, staffing and more. He had lined up caterers, found a backstage seamstress, hired temporary staff and was scheduling “hundreds of beloved volunteers, some of whom have been with us from the beginning.”

A longtime Kalamazoo resident, Dahlberg remembers when the Gilmore Festival was brand new. “From the beginning, the Gilmore concerts were special events that brought the finest, most interesting and extremely creative concerts to venues throughout the region,” he says.

In part because of their own time as performing musicians, both Dahlberg and van der Westhuizen understand the importance of creating the best concert atmosphere possible for the artists, and it’s clear that staging 55 concerts in two and a half weeks is nothing short of a labor of love.

“I want to create the most idyllic environment for them,” says van der Westhuizen. “If they feel comfortable, loved and cared for, then the audience will have a wonderful experience.”

“Solo pianists are a little like tennis players or golfers who perform at a high level,” says Dahlberg. “We do our best to help them create a great work of art, and ensure patrons can experience that art at its optimal level.”

Dahlberg admits he is rarely able to relax during Gilmore performances because of his responsibility to “have situational awareness of everything that’s going on or could go on around me.” He recalls a situation in 2018 when Stetson Chapel — set atop a hill on the Kalamazoo College campus — was full of guests waiting to hear the new Gilmore Artist, Igor Levit (who will return to Stetson to perform on May 2).

“It was a beautiful spring day, and I was outside as the last patrons went in. Something caught my eye down at the bottom of the hill. A lawn tractor was going back and forth, seeding the grass, and I realized if he continued, he would eventually be right next to the chapel during the performance. I hustled inside to find one of our board members, who hurtled out of his seat and down the hill to stop the tractor.”

Optimizing livestreaming

Lovers of piano music will be able to attend 2022 Gilmore Festival concerts either in-person or online, and the Gilmore team is working hard to optimize the experience for its online audiences. After the Covid pandemic forced the organization to pivot and offer non-festival-year performances online rather than in person, improving those experiences has become an ongoing goal for the team. For the past two years, they have mastered audio, visual and streaming technology to offer livestreamed and recorded concerts that were enjoyed by patrons from 41 countries.

At this year’s festival, 35 concerts will be offered live online on a “pay what you choose” basis, extending the geographic reach of the festival.

“We had talked for years about online programming, but, of course, the pandemic gave us a big push,” says van der Westhuizen. “We have essentially learned how to produce a TV show, learning skills which are now invaluable.”

“We learned to light the stage for the camera in a way that was not distracting to the performer and how to place the mics so the quality of the sound is as good as it can be,” says Dahlberg, knowing there are audiophiles with high-end sound systems eager to hear every detail they can. He adds with a smile, “As a child of the ’80s, and a performer, it was always my dream to make music videos.”

The quality of the Gilmore livestreams has garnered the attention of the classical music industry. The organization was tapped to partner with the international classical music label Deutsche Grammophon to livestream artists who have recording contracts with the label.

“I am incredibly proud of bringing our virtuosos of technology together to appropriately light, create sound, video, and provide world-class service during the livestreams,” Dahlberg says, noting it is hard for performers to play to an empty house. “Without an audience, the challenge is to create and sustain the right energy.”

Making music accessible

Some of this year’s shows in smaller venues have already sold out, but in-person tickets for still-available Gilmore performances are as low as $7 for students and $20 for others.
“What the Kalamazoo area funding community makes possible in terms of reasonable ticket prices cannot be understated,” says van der Westhuizen. “You couldn’t see Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall for less than $100.”

Although it’s not Carnegie Hall, Chenery Auditorium won van der Westhuizen’s heart during his first visit to the area to see Pink Martini perform at the 2012 festival. (Pink Martini returns to the festival this year, performing May 10 at Miller Auditorium.)

“I was blown away by what was essentially a high school auditorium that had the best acoustics anywhere,” he says. “How can you not fall in love? It stacks up against venues in New York or Europe. It’s perfect, acoustically speaking. It’s a rare gem.”

Returning standouts

Van der Westhuizen is also effusive about returning artists Sergei Babayan and Daniil Trifonov, with whom he worked during his time at the helm of the Cleveland International Piano Competition. And he is like a proud uncle when discussing 2018 Gilmore Young Artist Elliot Wu, now 22, who will perform with the Jackson Symphony in three concerts April 29–May 1.

“I first met him when he was 14 or so at our international youth competition. I remember him playing Beethoven’s First, and everyone just gasped,” van der Westhuizen recalls.

Dahlberg relates a similar story about being impressed by a rising star when he saw 2018 Gilmore Young Artist Wei Luo for the first time (she will play this year with the Brass Band of Battle Creek on May 21).

“I first heard her in 2017, performing Ravel’s La Valse, a piece I have performed countless times,” says Dahlberg, who played double bass for more than 25 years with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. “I thought to myself, ‘Let’s see what this kid can do.’ Well, it was an amazing, hair-raising performance. I’ve played this piece a hundred times, but I’d rarely heard a piano version that opened my eyes like that.”

A festival addition

New to the festival this year will be the Gilmore Festival Fellowship Program, which will bring 27 college-age musicians for a five-day intensive experience of daily coaching and master classes and access to all the concerts, interviews, lectures and talks by festival artists and teachers.

“Today’s most successful artists know how to navigate the industry, build their own audiences and cultivate an extensive network of peers, collaborators and teachers,” says van der Westhuizen. “We want to help prepare a new generation of talented pianists for the complexities of managing a successful concert career, which involves the art, the business and the person in the 21st century.”

Katie Houston

Katie Houston is a Kalamazoo-based writer, communications coach, and marketing consultant.

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