When Dan Gustin joined the Gilmore Keyboard Festival at the turn of the millennium, the festival was nine days long. Since then, the event has grown to 18 days, expanded its education and community engagement programs, created an endowment, and increased its commissions of new keyboard music, all under Gustin’s leadership.
Gustin was recruited from the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood festival, which is larger in budget and scope than the Gilmore. He said he was ready for a change, working with a smaller, more focused organization. “It might be a PT boat rather than a battleship, but when I turned the wheel, it actually changed course,” Gustin said. “I also saw what I thought to be a great potential for growth here.”
Now, after 18 years of growth with the festival, he’s ready to move on again.
Is there anything you might miss at the Gilmore as you step away?
Certainly putting together the festival, which is a great challenge, but to be in a position to put together a festival which focuses mainly on jazz and classical, balancing out newer music and some commissions — along with recognition of all of the great classical repertoire that we have — and focusing it all around the idea of a keyboard, is a great challenge, but it was also a great joy.
Focusing on this one group of instruments definitely is unique.
The keyboard literature, which goes way back to the 16th century right through to the present — and not just piano, but other forms of keyboard — it’s just so enormous. The literature that exists, the repertoire that exists — it’s just mind-boggling how much great music is out there. And to hear it performed on a very, very high level is a real treat.
How does someone like me approach the Gilmore?
Well, what you have to do is buy a ticket. You have to buy a ticket and then you go and you open your ears and listen, and that’s how the art form works, and you’re either moved or you’re not moved, or maybe you’re hungry or didn’t get enough sleep the night before. It all goes into one’s own perception of hearing music, but the discovery is that hearing music live, hearing it played for you, in a setting with others — it’s a very different experience than listening to it on the radio or on a recording. I mean, that’s what we at the Gilmore are trying to get people to do, is to go and hear it live, and recognize there’s nothing quite like it.
There really isn’t.
In my Boston days, I was traveling on the MTA and I heard two young college kids talking, and one said to the other, ‘Do you know Beethoven’s 6th Symphony?’, and the other one said, ‘Do I know it? I own it!’ That’s always haunted me. I mean, I was glad to hear that he valued Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, but the fact he thought he ‘owned’ it because he had a recording … You know, you don’t ever own music. It has to be performed for you, and if it’s frozen in a recording, that’s one way to enjoy it, but it’s not the best way. The best way is to hear a live performance of it, to hear a performer bring his or her talent and artistry, and point of view, to reflect on a great masterpiece.
When it comes to the Gilmore, what do you think goes overlooked? What would people be surprised to find out they enjoy?
Well, I think there is a segment of the community who respect it and who value the fact that we have this great festival here, but who don’t get off their butts and go to concerts. I mean, they’re distracted, they’d have to get a babysitter, or the tickets are expensive, or something else goes on. If I have one frustration, it’s that I wish more people would take advantage of it. Also, people think they know what they like. … (But) what we do in this field is try to encourage people to go to performances and expose themselves to new stuff. It’s exciting. How many times have you been to a performance and been surprised and thought, ‘Geez, wow!’ I mean, there are disappointments too, but when you’re surprised, it’s a moment you treasure forever.
And the Gilmore is working to make these experiences accessible.
You know, I mentioned ticket prices, and people have this sense of, ‘Oh geez, I can get into a movie for $8 and you know, this is costing me $20.’ People in West Michigan need to understand that we take great pride and we work very hard to make sure that the ticket prices for the festival are modest or moderate. So, I think if I had any frustration, it’s the fact that I don’t think people realize what a great value it is.