Streaming, rescheduling, refunds: 2020 Gilmore Keyboard Festival pulls out the contingency plans

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo  series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

Streaming, rescheduling, refunds: 2020 Gilmore Keyboard Festival pulls out the contingency plans  

It's a bit of a bad time to be a worrywart. But anticipating the worst can also have its benefits when the worst happens.

"You know, I'm a bit neurotic in general about planning and fretting about things, staying up at night thinking about all kinds of scenarios," says Pierre van der Westhuizen, Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. "But when I heard there was somebody with COVID-19, the coronavirus, in Chicago, I thought, um, you know, this thing can spread like wildfire. It only takes one airplane ride, one person...." 

The first coronavirus diagnosis in Chicago was announced March 9. The huge festival was set to launch in a little over a month. Artists from around the world would be landing in Kalamazoo. Fans of classical, jazz and many other genres were buying tickets for concerts and recitals April 22 through May 10. New Orleans jazz pianist and CBS "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" bandleader Jon Batiste, opera superstar Renee Fleming, Gilmore faves Pink Martini, around 50 musical events, plus talks, theatre, film showings --

It's all up in the air, now. 

By the end of the week of March 9, there were 25 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan, schools were shutting down, and Governor Whitmer had begun the process that led to non-essential services shutting down and many of us sitting in our homes. 

In early March, van der Westhuizen was glued to coronavirus news. When the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic, "I thought, I'm going to go ahead and listen to them." He canceled the festival March 13. 

Having joined as director during the Gilmore of 2018, this was to be the first fest he's planned as director. But van der Westhuizen knew the show could not go on.

Contingency plans

He was hearing that "this is the kind of stuff we lived through in world wars. This is something that will really bring countries to their knees," he says. 

"There are always people who will overreact and say things like that. It seems like in this case there was some truth to that." 

They have contingency plans for various scenarios in their files. Artists sometimes fall ill, have travel difficulties, cancel at the last moment. 

But there's always the possibility, though remote, for local/national/international calamities. "I don't think anybody anticipated pulling out the, what-if-we-have-to-cancel-the-whole-festival file."

The shut-it-all-down file had been gathering dust since the Gilmore began in 1989. It's not unusual for the Gilmore to have such a file, van der Westhuizen says. "Most presenting organizations at this scale usually have cancellation procedures in place, in case this happens."

Calling off the festival "meant going to all the artists and having the difficult conversation about canceling and trying to reschedule and coming up with alternative options. Going to all of the sponsors, all of the ticket holders, all of the venues. It's very systematic," he says.

"Everybody was very understanding, and of course knew what we were dealing with, and were very helpful." There was a lot of disappointment, "but everybody was really grateful that we were being proactive and had people's interests at heart." 

"It's one of the hardest things I've had to do, one of the toughest decisions I've had to make in my career. But it became easy once you put it in perspective and say, what's really more important, here? Once you get your priorities straight and think about the human aspect of everything you're doing, and then it becomes quite easy. The right thing becomes very apparent, very quickly." 

Refunding and rescheduling

Ticket refunds are "moving along," in spite of having to cut costs by cutting back on box office staff, he says. The cancellation is a financial hit for the organization, so "we're making sure that we are financially, fiscally conservative."  

They have "thousands of tickets to refund," though ticket holders have the option to donate the cost of the tickets to the Gilmore, or use as credit for a future event. "We've seen a mixture of those, but mostly refunds, and that's totally understandable, especially now when there's a lot of uncertainty and people really need that money." 

What if someone has tickets for Jon Batiste, that have been stuck to the refrigerator since February? (Full disclosure: That's me and my wife.) "Hold onto them! We are working on rescheduling him. We are so close. It will happen, we're just trying to pin down that date," he says. 

Some fest artists should be rescheduled soon for the 2020-21 season. Others van der Westhuizen hopes to bring in for the 2022 Gilmore Festival.

To fill some of the void, they will present Virtually Gilmore (https://www.thegilmore.org/news/virtually-gilmore/), with live-streamed concerts and recorded performances from their archives. On what was to be the festival’s opening date, April 22, they will run 2010 Gilmore Artist Kirill Gerstein’s performance from the 2018 Gilmore. On May 5, 2 p.m., they’ll stream a live performance from Berlin by 2018 Gilmore Artist Igor Levit. Also on Virtually Gilmore there will be new performances from 2020 Gilmore Young Artists Maxim Lando (April 25, 4 p.m.) and Misha Galant (May 2, 4 p.m.).

All these events aren't set in stone. In scheduling, "The key word is 'flexibility.'" van der Westhuizen says. "We make all these plans, and we hope we can act on them," he adds with a sardonic laugh.

From various Gilmore Young Artists to Levit in his Berlin home, musicians have been playing for their audience online, he says. "I've been talking to colleagues all over the globe, and what's fascinating is how quickly the performing arts are adapting to this, and figuring out new ways to make music and getting it to people."

Also to fill the void, the Gilmore will post archived sets from its past on its YouTube channel over April-May. 

Online performance is a substitute, but not comparable to hearing and feeling the music live, in-person.

"You can't sugarcoat it. It's a loss," says van der Westhuizen. "I don't want to sound too much like I'm boasting, but this is an event that people look forward to for months. It's one of the area's biggest cultural exports. It draws audiences from around the region. It's world-class artists. And it would've been my first festival, that I planned from the ground up, so from a personal standpoint there's that loss, too," he says.

"But out of that, I've just been humbled by how this community has rallied around us and keeps on supporting us."

The Gilmore will "keep planning for the future, and keep bringing these artists here."

"I think it helps people get through this to know, hey, it's coming back. There's something on the horizon after this, again. The world will be open again and we'll pick up again."

To-Be Rescheduled Gilmore Concerts: Jon Batiste, Pink Martini, Yefim Bronfman, Angela Hewitt, Emmet Cohen Trio and the Aaron Diehl Trio. Dates TBA. 

Streamed concerts will be posted on Gilmore TV. Streams and archived performances will be posted on the Gilmore's YouTube channel.
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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.