Last month, the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival named Pierre van der Westhuizen as its next director. The South African pianist and arts administrator will take the helm this January following the retirement of Daniel Gustin, the current director of 18 years. Widely credited with boosting the visibility of the prestigious Cleveland International Piano Competition, van der Westhuizen brings impressive administrative chops to The Gilmore — as well as the perspective of a renowned musician and passionate educator.
Van der Westhuizen kindly took some time away from house-hunting with his family to chat about how his new role will bring his creative aspirations to a full circle.
What do you love the most about the piano?
I love the fact that the piano can connect to anybody no matter their education, background or socioeconomic status. Anyone can walk up to a piano and produce a sound. The piano also can open up the sound of an entire orchestra. It’s a world within itself.
What are some experiences that stand out to you as formative to your career?
My interest in being more than a pianist started as undergrad student. I co-wrote and co-produced a musical with some other students, and then convinced the administration to put it on for us. Skipping forward, when my wife and I were finishing our doctorates in Cincinnati, we got our first jobs at Heidelberg University. There, we were launched into an effort to grow the piano department and we started a small keyboard festival with one or two concerts that grew into many events. I knew I had a passion for festivals when I started to enjoy those activities more than my faculty meetings (laughter).
What part of your work as executive director of the Cleveland International Piano Competition are you most proud of?
When I took the position of director designate in 2011, I quickly realized the competition itself could be a really serious enterprise, and really stressful for young competitors. I wanted to create something that made them feel like they were a part of something larger … to celebrate the things they had in common rather than their differences. In 2012, I visited The Gilmore as an audience member and fell in love with the many ways they celebrated the piano. For the 2013 competition, I decided to invite some guest performers and lecturers, and screen some films. The community responded so well, and I’m very proud of the fact that I was able to start a similar program there.
It sounds like you were inspired by The Gilmore in a way?
Yes, very much so. I’d known about The Gilmore for a long time due to its fame in the piano world. One of my board members in Cleveland encouraged me to attend in 2012. I went and was in awe at how the community embraced The Gilmore. As a pianist, it was so exciting to see so many people coming out to be part of an event centered around the instrument.
What is one of the first things you plan to do in your new role?
I believe that in order to be the most successful as a leader, you need to be able to listen. I plan on spending a lot of time meeting people and hearing what the community has to say. I do have a lot of ideas about how we can implement technology to connect what The Gilmore does to the world at large. I also want to bring technology onto the concert stage. I’ve seen some amazing new advances and unique trends in Chicago and New York that I’d love to bring to Kalamazoo. It’s a joy knowing this is the type of organization that will allow me to really get creative.
If you don’t mind giving them away, what are some of your ideas?
What I’d like to achieve is a multi-sensory, immersive festival so that The Gilmore and Kalamazoo become a cultural destination. I want to see how we can connect what we do musically to the craft beer industry, the growing food scene, the visual arts and dance that is happening in town. And then, for me as an educator, I’d love to create a ‘Gilmore Academy’ where we could bring in young people for an intensive seminar. There are similar programs going on at the Aspen and Tanglewood music festivals. So, something to that effect where we can be an incubator for the next generation.
Any closing thoughts?
My family and I are incredibly excited to be coming to Kalamazoo. We’ve already met so many warm and welcoming people. We look forward to taking our place as contributing citizens.