Keys to the City: Gilmore Piano Festival Returns
Written by John Kissane. Photo: Keyboardist Delvon Lamarr. Courtesy of Gilmore Piano Festival

The 2024 Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival, as grand as its name implies, is back again with two weeks of legendary performances. It will feature more or less everyone and will take place everywhere and all of the time: 200+ musicians, 100+ events, and 26 venues. 

Audiences will have the opportunity to hear music as quietly soul-stirring as Chopin’s 3rd Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op 58 (Ingrid Fliter) as fabulously caffeinated as the best classical-jazz fusion (Hiromi featuring PUBLIQuartet), and as brassy as whatever Patti Lupone wants to play. Of the festival, Pierre Van Der Westhuizen, Executive and Artistic Director of The Gilmore, says it’s the organization’s “crown jewel.”

He joined in 2018. His impression prior to joining was “of an organization whose members were deeply passionate. Every person here had a huge belief in the mission. And getting to interact with the artists and see the magnitude of this festival was thrilling and, really, surprising; to have something like this in a town the size of Kalamazoo!”

Planning the festival is a task on the order of Hercules slaying the Nemean lion; it can be done, but not easily. Given the nature of planning in the musical world, conversations with some of the artists slated to play took place five years ago. And the work is ongoing; venues have to be staffed, artists driven, and more. Some 200 volunteers, looking to contribute to something meaningful, have given and are still giving their time to the festival.

Like the festival itself, those volunteers are spread out. While most of the events take place in Kalamazoo, the Gilmore extends its reach into ten other cities, including Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Marshall, and more.

As vital as the broadness geographically is that of the music itself. “That’s vital,” Van Der Westhuizen said. “We want to inspire passion for piano music no matter where you’re coming from: jazz, classical, pop, indie pop…regardless, piano is there. It’s so critical to so many of these genres.”

Piano will be there on May 2nd at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, in Kalamazoo, as the Gerald Clayton Trio takes the stage for two shows (as of this writing, the 6 PM show is sold out but tickets remain available for the 9 PM). Clayton, a four-time Grammy nominee and son of bassist and composer John Clayton, brings a rhythmic, disciplined approach to his playing; it’s a joy to hear it.

Also on May 2nd, Loki Karuna will deliver a talk on activism in classical music at Kalamazoo’s Epic Center. A bassoonist, he found that his calling was in using music to drive conversation and social change. He will discuss his life and history and will fling a gauntlet, or at least encourage others to imagine more than they otherwise might have.

On May 3rd, Through The Eyes of Yuja: A Road Movie will be screened at Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s Stryker Theater. The 2006 Gilmore Young Artist, Yuja Wang is on the road some 120 days a year, which is both a joy and a burden. Audience members will have the opportunity to learn her heart before they hear it (she plays Chenery Auditorium on May 8th).

The same day, Olga Kern, who directs her own piano competition (the Olga Kern International Piano Competition) plays Dalton Center Recital Hall at Western Michigan University. She’ll come bearing laurels; she was only 17 when she placed first in Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition, and, in 2001, won the gold medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the first time a woman had done so in three decades.

On May 10th, Pink Martini, featuring vocalist China Forbes, will take to Western Michigan University’s Miller Auditorium. The band was formed years ago in Portland, Oregon, to, improbably, play political fundraisers. From such unpromising soil arose a sturdy plant with gorgeous flowers, each petal of which is distinctly colored by jazz, classical, Latin, and more.

And there is, of course, Patti LuPone. An iconic figure on Broadway and beyond, Lupone closes the festival with A Life In Notes, an evening devoted to stories and music from her long and storied career. “What an opportunity,” Van Der Westhuizen said. “She’s performed on the world’s greatest stages. She’s an utmost professional. This will be a great experience.”

Presented here are, of course, only a fraction of the festival’s whole. No one person’s experience of the festival will be exactly the same; some might take in a show or two virtually, while others will be there in person as often as they can, eager to be in the room where the vibrations take place. What will link the experience of everyone who attends is exposure to a wealth of music, centered on a single instrument but expanding in all directions–a reminder, in the midst of a present that can sometimes seem mundane, that we, all of us, have access to glory: listen, there it is

Gilmore Piano Festival

359 S. Kalamazoo Mall, Kalamazoo

April 24-May 12