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Taking Chances

New Gilmore director believes in serendipity
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Pianist Pierre can der Westhuizen has been playing piano for almost 30 years.

Two things happened a world away from each other when Pierre van der Westhuizen was 10 that would come together for him many years later in an unexpected, but very fortunate way.

In 1989, van der Westhuizen started piano lessons in his hometown of Heidelberg, South Africa. The same year, more than 8,600 miles away, in Kalamazoo, an organization formed to launch the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.

And now, three decades later, the nearly 40-year-old van der Westhuizen is the new director of the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, taking the helm as The Gilmore’s director of nearly 18 years, Daniel R. Gustin, takes a bow.

“I am firm believer in serendipity in how things work out,” says van der Westhuizen.

Related story: Longtime director notes memorable Gilmore moments

As a boy, van der Westhuizen says, he played the piano but didn’t begin to take it seriously until he was 10, which, he says, “was considered late.“

“I remember the teacher saying, ‘Now don’t expect anything … ,’” he says, laughing. “She was one of those old, stodgy teachers, but I knew after the first lesson that I loved it and that this was ‘it.’”

His parents were nearly as discouraging as his piano teacher. “My family said, ‘This is a terrible career,’ which I agree with. Music is a terrible career because it’s so brutal. They wanted me to study medicine and yada yada, but when you know, you know. My father, thankfully, said, ‘If you do what makes you happy, you won’t work a single day in your life.’”

Two for one

Van der Westhuizen went on to get a bachelor’s degree in music performance at North-West University, in South Africa, which is where he met his future wife, Sophie, who is also a pianist.

“We met as undergrads, and it’s just one of those stories where I was eyeing her from the get-go and knew we were going to study with the same teacher, so I went to the teacher and asked if I could play some duets with Sophie. We’ve been playing duets ever since.”

Rather than becoming dueling pianists, the couple found their fates and careers ultimately intertwined. They were both recruited to attend the doctoral program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

As they were wrapping up their doctoral program, they both applied for and interviewed for a position on the faculty at Heidelberg University, in Tiffin, Ohio.

“They jokingly told me, ‘We have to give you the job. You’re from a Heidelberg,’” he recalls, laughing. In actuality, though, the university had only one position, but two outstanding candidates who were married to each other.

“We said, ‘We’re married, so you are going to get both of us no matter what, so why don’t you split the job?’ And that’s what they did,” says van der Westhuizen.

Related story: Gilmore Fest aims to make Kalamazoo a 'cultural destination'

Within four years, the two half positions had grown into two full-time jobs. It was at Heidelberg University that van der Westhuizen dipped his toe into the world of music festivals. Inspired by attending the Cleveland International Piano Competition and knowing that it would be good for student recruitment, van der Westhuizen convinced his depart-ment chair and dean to let him start a keyboard festival at the university.

“In 2001, I went to it (the Cleveland competition) and loved it,” he says. “The winner was Roberto Plano from Italy. Fast forward to 2005 and I started the festival and invited Plano to perform because I remembered him from the Cleveland competition.”

‘You never know’

It turned out that some members of the Cleveland International Piano Competition’s board attended Plano’s performance at the Heidelberg Music Festival and met van der Westhuizen. Six years later, one of those board members called “out of the blue” and asked if van der Westhuizen would be interested in becoming the president and CEO of the organization that runs the competition.

“When I give talks about a career in music and arts administration,” van der Westhuizen says, “I say, ‘Treasure your relationships from the minute you walk in the door, because you never know. You just never know.’”

It just so happened that one of the board members of the Cleveland organization was Jill Goubeaux Clark, a former Kalamazoo resident and former trustee of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. It was Clark who urged van der Westhuizen to attend a Gilmore Keyboard Festival, which he did in 2012.

“I was here for the final weekend and saw Pink Martini and the final concerts,” he says. “I just loved how the community took over the streets, and it was just all things piano. And I thought, ‘Why haven’t I been here before?’ It’s really a pianist’s dream come true.

“I loved the idea of a fully integrated piano experience. Many times we go to a concert, go home and that’s that, but here you get to not only go to a concert, but you get to go to a master class, you get to go to a film, you have dinner and see artists at clubs, you spend time with artists at preconcert talks, which is a more intimate setting, and you get to interact with other people and talk about it.“

In 2016, the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival began the search to replace Gustin, who planned to retire as director following the 2018 festival. Don Parfet, who chaired the selection committee looking for Gustin’s replacement, says they were looking for someone who not only had an administrative background, but could be a mentor, adviser and confidante for the pianists.

“The Gilmore is renowned for its festival and for recognizing global talent in keyboard performances,” Parfet says. “Part of that talent recognition is also developing talent and helping artists further their careers. Dan (Gustin) was very adept at that and well regarded in that way by the artists. We were also looking for someone who understood the world of piano performance and had a deep understanding of the piano marketplace. “

‘Interesting connections’

Enter van der Westhuizen, whose name was among an impressive pool of candidates, says Parfet. Not only had van der Westhuizen transformed the Cleveland International Piano Competition from a single event into one with a festival approach tied to a full-fledged arts organization, he also doubled the corporate investment in the organization. He had been recognized by the Crain’s Cleveland Business as a “40 under 40” community leader and as one of 2015’s “30 Music Professionals of the Year” by Musical America magazine.

Parfet says there were “interesting connections” that made van der Westhuizen stand out.

“Pierre is an accomplished pianist himself who, while not a big performer, is very involved in education,” says Parfet, “and he is coming to us from running the Cleveland International Piano Competition. He had many of the requisite skills, and when he had attended the festival in 2012, he met Dan and was impressed with how The Gilmore was ‘all things piano.’”

Ah, serendipity again.

It was announced in September 2017 that van der Westhuizen would be The Gilmore’s new director and by January the van der Westhuizen family, which includes Pierre and Sophie’s four children, Jean-Pierre, 8, Emma, 7, Ian, 4, and Phillip, 2, was settled in Kalamazoo. Van der Westhuizen found himself jumping into “the craziness” of an organization already neck-deep in implementing the 2018 festival and admits “it’s been a blur.”

“It’s kind of the perfect time to come in because I am very blessed and lucky to have Dan here to oversee the execution of the festival,” he says. “Dan and I hit it off from the get-go and it’s great for me to see the day-to-day work of everything that goes into the festival and the kind of craziness that goes into it.”

The perfect time

More than that, van der Westhuizen is also learning about the covert and complicated process the Gilmore uses to select the winner of the Gilmore Artist Award every four years.

“Working with Dan now will really inform the next four years for me, especially with the Gilmore Artist Award selection process,” he says. “It’s critical to talk to him because he built that, and it’s a very delicate process that has to have a very careful handover.”

But once the 2018 festival ends, Gustin will retire and van der Westhuizen will be on his own.

“Pierre is going to bring some exciting energy to The Gilmore that will challenge us to think about new ways to produce the festival and attract new audiences,” says Parfet.

Van der Westhuizen also comes on board as The Gilmore breaks in two new, pivotal staff members: Anders Dahlberg, who replaced Maria Schneider as operations director and oversees the logistics of the festival and other Gilmore events, and Curtis Cunningham, who takes the reins as the organization’s director of marketing and public relations.

“It’s great to have a blank slate with them,” van der Westhuizen says, “but it’s a great balance, because we have people who have been here a long time that will provide context and continuity. It’s the best possible time to come in.”

Ah, serendipity.

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“When I give talks about a career in music and arts administration, I say, ‘Treasure your relationships from the minute you walk in the door, because you never know. You just never know.’”

—Pierre van der Westhuizen, Gilmore Keyboard Festival Director

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