The Gilmore Festival is Back


The Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival features Diana Krall.

(Photo: Courtesy of the The Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival)

Billed as “North America’s largest gathering of keyboard artists,” the 15th biennial Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival opened Sunday, April 24, with a solo piano concert with Herbie Hancock at Kalamazoo’s Miller Auditorium. Running through Sunday, May 15, the festival’s main calling card has always been classical music, featuring world-class pianists performing as solo artists, with various chamber ensembles as well as with symphony orchestra.

The jazz component, however, has always been a strong complement to a festival designed with a wide-ranging, stylistic flair. In addition to Hancock, this year’s festival will offer shows featuring returning artists Diana Krall and quartet and Fred Hersch, along with Emmet Cohen, Sullivan Fortner, TRI-FI, Dan Tepfer and Pablo Ziegler (all in trio formats).

In addition, there will be the world premiere of a Gilmore commission from composer/percussionist/drummer Tyshawn Sorey, performed by pianist Conor Hanick with Sandbox Percussion. And running with nightly performances, the Tony Award-winning play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill will give festival-goers a chance to imagine the last days of Billie Holiday through song and salty reminiscences, provided by pianist Abdul Hamid Royal and Alexis J. Roston as Lady Day.

In total, the festival, which was offered online only in 2020 due to the pandemic, will present more than 100 concerts by as many as 50 pianists. As usual, there will be many educational events including master class pre-concert talks, film screenings, lectures and an interactive public art installation.

Based in Kalamazoo, the Gilmore festival has traditionally been a West Michigan affair, with programs and concerts including Grand Rapids, Lansing, South Haven, Jackson, Saugatuck, Richland and Battle Creek. It’s clearly one of Michigan’s major arts events. An additional programming note: Unlike in 2020, the festival will present both virtual and in-person events with more than 35 livestreamed festival performances that take place before an in-person audience in West Michigan.

Something new this year is the partnership between The Gilmore and the John Stites Jazz Artist Organization. Founded in 2021, the partnership was formed in memory of Kalamazoo-based recording engineer John Stites, an artist in his own right, who recorded many notable albums by resident and visiting jazz musicians. As part of this partnership, annual grants ranging from $20,000 to $150,000 will be provided to support The Gilmore’s world-class jazz programming. Support will include the covering of artist fees for jazz musicians performing at The Gilmore International Piano Festival, The Gilmore Rising Stars Series, and new Jazz Piano Masters concert held in alternate years to the main festival, beginning in 2023.

Executive and Artistic Director Pierre van der Westhuizen had this to say about the partnership: “We are thrilled to be working with the Stites Jazz Artist Organization. John Stites was an important part of our audio engineering history for the Festival for many years. We’re honored to be able to work with his legacy foundation to bring artists like Herbie Hancock to Kalamazoo.”

In a similar vein, the Larry J. Bell Jazz Artist Award for jazz pianists are new. Akin to the Gilmore Artist Award for classical pianists, the recipient of this new award will be chosen every four years by an anonymous committee and will receive $300,000 — a $50,000 cash grant to be used at the artist’s discretion, and $250,000 disbursed over a four-year period for projects and activities that’ll enhance the artist’s musicianship and career. The first Larry J. Bell Jazz Artist will be announced in 2026. On top of the $300,000 award, a new Larry J. Bell Young Jazz Artist Award will be established bestowing $25,000 every two years to the most promising of the new generation of American jazz pianists age 22 and younger, beginning in 2026. Larry Bell, owner of Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, will host a number of the jazz events at his Eccentric Cafe.

And, in case anyone was wondering, the festival made a key name change recently. According to van der Westhuizen, who’s been at the helm for three years, the story goes like this: “When asked [when traveling], ‘What do you do?,’ I’m met with confusion when I reply, ‘I work for the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.’

“The questions go as follows: ‘So, what kinds of keyboards?’ ‘Oh, is this a digital/electronic music festival?’ ‘Is that a historical instrument festival?’ ‘Keyboards? Like with computers?’ Changing this one word will sharpen the lens and help us communicate our mission more clearly around the world.”

Tickets can be purchased online at, by phone at (269) 250-6984 or in person at the Gilmore box office, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall. E-tickets are available for livestreamed events, also at, on a pay-what-you-see basis. DB

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