New Gilmore director works alongside outgoing director to take on the challenge of festival making

"I just think it's so creative, so exciting. And there's no other place, I feel like, in this part of the world where you have this concentration of keyboard music in this short amount of time, by top-level pianists. I mean, it's worth traveling for," Pierre van der Westhuizen says of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.

For over 25 years the biannual festival has brought the dollars of a large audience to Southwest Michigan, put Kalamazoo on the musical map, and brought a wide variety of classical, jazz and uncategorizable sounds to our ears.

Originally from South Africa, new Gilmore director van der Westhuizen traveled from Cleveland, Ohio, where he was director of the Cleveland International Piano Competition, to take the position in January. 

The Gilmore's director for the past 18 years, Dan Gustin, is responsible for the 2018 festival line-up and is staying with the Gilmore as director emeritus during the transition. 

Second Wave sat down with Gustin and van der Westhuizen to talk about the Gilmore's past, future, and what sounds the 18-day festival (April 25-May 12) 2018 festival is bringing to town.

How has the changing-of-the-guard been going?

"Dan is really wonderful to work with," van der Westhuizen says. "He has been incredibly generous, gracious...."
"I can be around, and I don't have any responsibilities!" Gustin says laughing. "A problem arises, and I can say, 'Talk to Pierre.' It's great, why didn't I think of this years ago?"

Joking aside, Gustin adds, "Not only do I think we're a compatible two-some, as directors, but I think this guy's going to take us onward and upward. I have a good sense of that."

How does Gustin feel about passing the torch, and about how the Gilmore has changed in his time at the helm?

"I wouldn't be totally honest if I didn't say I had some, not misgivings, but twinges," Gustin says. But, "I'm definitely ready to step down. I mean, I was 28 years with the Boston Symphony (where he was managing director) and then 18 years here. So it's time to slow down a little bit."

In his time at the Gilmore, Gustin says "it's grown, mostly in good ways. I think it's up to others to judge that, but in my sense -- after all, in 2002, we doubled the size of the festival. Our wonderful public here in West Michigan just took it in. My sense is that nationally and internationally, particularly with the (Gilmore Artist) Award, we're a much-better-known entity now. I don't necessarily take credit for that, but I think the growth of the organization, and now has eight or so Gilmore artists, I think it developed a reputation as to what we do and who we are and all that. That's been quite satisfying."

van der Westhuizen says, "I think a ton of credit should go to Dan. Incredible vision coming in here, building something that was relatively regional and small into something really of international stature -- that, too, is a lot." 

Gustin adds, "I've been thankful that the early years of the festival and awards were behind the festival when I took over in 2000, because a lot of things had to be worked out and tried, experimented with and a lot of settling down, and expectations and non-expectations.... That was all behind us. So when I got here, it was ready to go epic." 

How does Gustin feel about all the music he's been exposed to at the Gilmore?

"I love it, I adore it. Next to my family, it's the most important thing in my life." 

Classical keyboard music has carried the stereotype of a stuffy sound of the past -- The Gilmore seems to have always found ways to counteract that image, and to make sure it's a living, breathing culture.

Gustin says that "all along, through my career, my interest has been in helping, establishing a younger generation (of musicians) -- that's the most exciting thing for me, to see them coming up through the world."

And how to get a younger audience?

"That's always the struggle we as administrators face. People keep challenging us to think about the next generation. That's all we do," van der Westhuizen says, laughing. "How are we going to engage the next generation, while maintaining a deep respect for the art form -- that's the challenge."

This year's festival, as well as past, shows an effort to program a variety of sounds for different audiences. Nothing poppy, but there are concerts on the schedule that fit the State Theatre and Bell's Eccentric Cafe, as well as Chenery or Miller auditoriums.

"We're primarily focused on what I call music as an art form," Gustin says, but there are a lot of directions one can go within that focus. Snarky Puppy will appear at the 2018 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.

He continues, "Today, I think there's a special challenge of attracting people, particularly the younger generation, to live musical performance, because they're so used to listening to all kinds of music electronically, that sometimes they don't realize, or they forget, what it's like to hear music created. Like a great chef creating a meal, it's not frozen foods or pre-packaged stuff...."

Kids these days don't want live music?

Not exactly, van der Westhuizen says. "If we look at the response to Snarky Puppy, we've had now several stories of kids looking for a Snarky Puppy tour, wanting to get on a plane to California to go hear them. And then to their delight discovering that they're going to be right here in Kalamazoo, they're just so thankful. Eighteen-year-olds we're talking about. So if they're willing to get on a plane to hear this band, then that's real passion, and there's something there to tap into." (The two-time Grammy-winning group features some of the younger generation’s leading jazz and pop artists.)

van der Westhuizen adds that the festival will livestream many events, "because you have to meet them where they are. And once you ignite that passion, they will make the trip, they will come here, but you have to meet them where they are. So I think live streaming is very important and will become more important as we move forward."

"One of the reasons for a festival like this is to remind people that there's still nothing like hearing major artists," Gustin says.

"I do want to make a point that what makes it possible for them (a younger audience) to come is that there is an economic aspect to this," van der Westhuizen says. "The next generation doesn't have the means that the baby boomers had. That plays into 'am I going to stream this music for 99 cents, or am I going to go to a concert?' So we have to be mindful -- we shouldn't make economic assumptions about our audience.... The average 30-something now earn much less than their grandparents did."

Gustin and van der Westhuizen point out the festival's tradition of keeping the ticket prices low -- usually 20 percent cheaper than similar concerts in large cities. Also, students can attend most concerts for $7, "and sit anywhere in the house. We don't just stick them up in the balcony," Gustin says.

Is this all possible because of the big-moneyed private endowments that fund the Gilmore, and much of Kalamazoo's culture?

"That's very important, but it's not just big money. It's also our regulars who give $100 a year," Gustin says. "There's a lot of people who buy tickets and make a modest donation. It adds up."

How has the festival benefitted Kalamazoo, economically?

"For the 2016 festival, we did run some data that I could verify, and estimates were that about 35,000 people attended, 30 percent from out of town, from 27 states," van der Westhuizen says. "And about $4 million was brought into Kalamazoo. 

(Specific figures sent from the Gilmore office: The 2016 festival had 35,428 attendees; the average number of performances per patron attended were 6.26; economic impact on Kalamazoo County based on calculations by Americans for the Arts was $4.171 million.)

"If you think about all the hotel, all the restaurant, all the venues that we use, all the vendors that we bring business to -- and then, beyond that, think about all the educational activities, all of the outreach, all of the family concerts surrounding, just the value-added benefits to everything that's being done -- "

"It's hard to quantify the value added stuff," Gustin adds.

"And the Gilmore, for those two-and-a-half weeks, puts Kalamazoo on the world stage in terms of the classical music industry. You can't put a dollar sign on that in terms of the exposure of Kalamazoo on the world stage," van der Westhuizen says.

He recalls a moment in Cleveland when speaking with renowned Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. "I mentioned to her that I was going to the Gilmore next. And she said 'Ah, yes, Kalamazoo!' She knew. It's certainly well-known among the top echelon of the world's greatest pianists."

What does van der Westhuizen see for the future of the Gilmore?

"I see a lot more engaging in technology, exploring; we're starting a lot of community outreach and education, we have a great team who's just come onboard, they have a lot of great ideas." 

He's working on the 2020 festival already. No performers to announce, but he promises, "it's kind of a smorgasbord" of musical genres and disciplines. "We're making sure that we offer something for everyone -- that is the challenge. But it also has to make cohesive sense. That's a challenge, but it's a fun challenge."

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992. He's covered many Gilmore International Keyboard Festivals and prefers anything New Orleans, Cuban, or playfully experimental. 

The Top Ten Gilmore 2018 Concerts
(As selected by Mark Wedel — who covered many Gilmores back when he was an A&E writer for the Kalamazoo Gazette -- with personal biases, and arranged in no particular order. Links to samples.)Julien Labro

1. Julien Labro Quartet, April 27, Dalton Center Recital Hall: French-born Labro rocks the accordion, with all of its European-Argentinian Gypsy jazz-tango flair, in a jazz quartet.

2. Lawrence Brownlee, May 1, Stetson Chapel: The Gilmore usually brings in the finest voices for its keyboard fest, and Brownlee's tenor has become critically acclaimed in recent years. Able to sing classic opera to spirituals, he'll be performing a new work at Stetson, "Cycles of My Being," depicting the experience of being a black male in America.

3. Kirill Gerstein, May 4, Dalton Center Recital Hall: 2010 Gilmore Artist, a returning favorite, Gerstein has gone from the Gilmore to international classical stardom. "One seldom sees an audience erupt with such spontaneous delight," The Independent wrote of his performance.

3. Leif Ove Andsnes, 4. Ingrid Fliter, 5. Igor Levit: More Gilmore award-winners, including the latest, Levit, 2018 Gilmore Artist. The secret selection committee awards $300,000 to outstanding concert pianists every four years, establishing their careers and giving the festival a ready stable of amazing, proven pianists. 

6. Christian Sands Trio, April 26, Bell's Eccentric Cafe: Born in 1989, won Grammy nominations at 20, with six albums, Sands has been a prolific star in the latest jazz generation. Protege of Billy Taylor, he's taken in a century's worth of styles and made them his own.

7. "Liberace!", April 27-May 13, Farmers Alley Theatre: One-man show starring pianist/actor David Maiocco looks at the glitz and glamour of the famously flamboyant Liberace, and his life on the stage.

8. Dr. Lonnie Smith, May 6, Williams Theatre: For over 50 years Smith has been the Hammond B3 master in jazz, funk, soul, and blues. JazzTimes calls him "a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a turban!"

Dr. Lonnie Smith 9. Nellie McKay, May 10, Civic Auditorium; May 11, W.K. Kellogg Foundation: Actress, singer-songwriter, Broadway performer, political advocate, ukulele plucker and former stand-up comedian, McKay's inclusion in the festival's schedule proves that the Gilmore is all about variety. "She writes lyrics like a gonzo Cole Porter and sings like an attitudinal Peggy Lee," New Your Nightlife magazine says. 

10. Snarky Puppy, May 11 State Theatre: There's no way to sum up the Grammy-winning large jazz and funk collective of musicians from jazz and pop worlds. "Music for the brain and booty," is how the group puts it.