KALAMAZOO — Every second spring, this city in southwest Michigan between Detroit and Chicago generates excitement for serious music lovers. Since 1991, the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival has assembled esteemed pianists and musicians for dozens of concerts in a biennial musical blitz. This year’s Gilmore runs nearly three weeks from April 26 to May 14.
Moreover, at a four-year interval the Gilmore awards an eye-popping $300,000 to an aspiring pianist judged most deserving to be Gilmore Artist for that year. The next Gilmore Artist will be named in 2018.
Previous recipients reflect the geographic range of the candidates: David Owen Norris, England (1991); Ralf Gothoni, Finland (1994); Leif Ove Andsnes, Norway (1998); Piotr Anderszewski, Poland (2002); Ingrid Fliter, Argentina (2006); Kirill Gerstein, USA (2010); and Rafal Blechacz, Poland (2014). All seven have blazed formidable professional paths, abetted by the Gilmore award and celebrity.
Like many marvels inspiring great art enterprises, the Gilmore exists thanks to a crucial patron and the enthusiasm of a host community. If the name of the festival’s principal benefactor, Irving S. Gilmore, previously went unnoticed in music circles, that all changed with the auspicious start of his festival and the naming of the first Gilmore Artist.
Gilmore (1900-86) was gone by then, but the designated festival leaders still prepared an impressive launch. Van Cliburn, America’s prince of the keyboard at the time, kicked off the inaugural concert in 1991 before an audience of 3,400, and the Gilmore has never looked back.
Irving Gilmore was born in Kalamazoo to a leading philanthropic family known for its support of the arts. He studied music at Yale University in preparation for life as a professional pianist. But complications with the family enterprise, Gilmore Brothers Department Store, interrupted those intentions, and he instead returned to Kalamazoo to manage the Gilmore businesses until his death.
His Gilmore Foundation was dedicated to promoting art, culture, and humanities in the Kalamazoo region. Upon his death, foundation trustees brainstormed at length for ways to honor Gilmore’s life with an appropriate musical connection. Their eventual conclusion was to choose a promising pianist every four years — a Gilmore Artist — as recipient of a $300,000 award meant to advance the winner’s career and musical development. To celebrate the award appropriately, a significant piano event was conceived. Voilà, the Gilmore.
The selection process is itself an ingenious mechanism. David Pocock, a piano professor at Western Michigan University, was commissioned by foundation trustees to explore appropriate methods. Pocock held countless conferences with long-time leaders challenged by comparable objectives. Their conclusion was not to adopt a competitive format; there already were too many competitions. Rather, the mantra for the Gilmore became that there should be no losers, only winners. The verdict should not depend on a single climactic performance. The results have been remarkably satisfying.
Choosing the award winner became a saga in itself. A secret Gilmore panel evaluated candidates incognito by visiting live concerts of the unsuspecting artists, wherever the performances were held. When the unidentified jurists settled on a choice, only then did the candidate discover that he or she had been observed and judged. (Think MacArthur Fellowships for pianists.)
Consequently, every fourth year the chosen Gilmore Artist plays a starring role in the festival’s activities.
The first administrative leaders heading the Gilmore event were Pocock (artistic director) and David Hook (executive director). Many of the lasting features of the Gilmore were initiated by them. Eventually the two directorships were combined into one, and Daniel Gustin was named festival director in 2000. Coming from Tanglewood, Gustin was familiar with the people and techniques that allow a great festival to flourish. He has been extraordinarily inventive, broadening the festival’s reach.
This year’s Gilmore offers 84 musical events with more than 100 musicians participating. The festival draws an audience of thousands to the arts-friendly university city from around the globe. Though no new Gilmore Artist is the focus for this year’s festival, Yefim Bronfman is highlighted in a recital of works by Prokofiev on April 29. He will share the spotlight with three past Gilmore Artists — Gerstein (with the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra), Fliter (solo and with Gerstein), and Blechacz (with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra).
Also taking a prominent role in the 2016 Gilmore is the versatile French composer Michel Legrand, who is to perform his own piano concerto in a world premiere with the Kalamazoo Symphony. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is to present a recital of Schumann songs. And two Gilmore Young Artists for 2016 will have essential parts to play: San Francisco native Daniel Hsu, 18, is scheduled to perform in Lansing with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, and Charleston, S.C., native Micah McLaurin, 21, is to join the Battle Creek Symphony for a concerto performance. Both are veteran prize winners and students of the Curtis Institute.
Solo recitals happen all day, each day, at the festival. Among prominently featured pianists this year are Dick Hyman, Bruce Hornsby, Jeremy Denk, Imogen Cooper, Lori Sims, Llŷr Williams, Nelson Freire, Richard Goode, Till Fellner, and Dejan Lazic. Chamber music events will feature the Morgenstern Trio, Mantra (using electronic music), Gilmore Festival Chamber Orchestra, Siskind-Rathbun Duo, and Anderson & Roe Piano Duo. Go here for the full schedule.
Jazz and pop music are well represented in the 2016 program, and Tony Bennett will find a huge audience awaiting his songs.
More options? Twelve of the performers are to lead free morning master classes, always popular. Lectures are offered by experts on such topics as Stockhausen and German song cycles. Five films addressing musicians and musical subjects are scattered throughout the festival. And ten performances of Murder For Two, a 90-minute musical comedy for two actors who both play the piano, will be staged in conjunction with Farmers Alley Theatre.
An ancillary dimension of the Gilmore has been its Rising Stars series. Gifted newcomers under 30 are invited to Kalamazoo each year for solo recitals that are spread throughout the fall and winter season, outside the festival calendar. Although the names of the young artists are not yet well known (this year’s roster included newcomers from China, France, Israel, Russia, Germany and the U.S.), the list of previous rising stars includes many who went on to important solo careers, among them Lang Lang, Jonathan Biss, Yuja Wang, Orion Weiss, Adam Neiman, Natasha Paremski, and Christopher Taylor.
A bonus delight for those who attend these Rising Stars programs is watching the pianists gain increasing international prominence as time goes by.
For more information about the Gilmore and the 2016 festival, go here.