Gerard Willems Interview: An Australia living legend of the piano

About Gerard Willems

Gerard Willems is a legendary Australian pianist, who has won many awards & competitions, performing at the most renowned concert halls around the world, and being made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the arts as a concert pianist, educator and mentor.

You have seen and been part of many Sydney International Piano Competitions over the years. What aspects of the competition have changed over time, and what has remained consistent? 

Gladiatorial sports have always fascinated people, from the time of the ancient Romans to the present day. This is consistent with piano competitions, where every audience member has his or her favourites and everybody becomes an expert. 


Is it the music or the competition that fascinates? 

The truth crosses perhaps from one to the other, and we can celebrate the joys of music making together with our innate pleasure of comparing. A healthy sport indeed! 


Can you share an instance in the competition where a pianist’s performance left a lasting impact on you as a listener?  What made them memorable? 

The fascination lies in hearing an artist for the first time. For me, the really outstanding performances are the ones where the piano sound disappears and is transfigured into pure emotion where the narrative is projected. After all, we want the story to be told even if it is in abstract terms. We wait with bated breath for the next exciting discovery.  


In your opinion, what is the role of contemporary music in piano competitions, and how should it be evaluated? 

Of course, contemporary music plays a significant role in competitions. Apart from 300 odd years of magnificent keyboard music from Buxtehude to Bernstein we must look into the future and celebrate how we view the future and where we are going. Perhaps a category of improvisation could be included in The Sydney on future occasions. It would be so enlightening, fascinating, and revealing. 


How important is the technical ability of a pianist in comparison to their interpretation and musicality? 

Of course, technical ability is fundamental just as sharp chisels and saws are fundamental to a carpenter. However that alone does not create magic. It is the artistic vision we are waiting for, with all its strengths and flaws. Risk-taking! Fabulous! 


You are recognised as one of Australia’s living legends of the piano, what are some of the early influences or experiences that helped ‘set you up’ for success? 

From the tender age of seven I have been fascinated by the magic of music, never thinking of a career. However, with luck on my side I met people who helped me find my direction and artistic path. With my father as role model in mind, who died when I was 16, I travelled the world working with and meeting pianists such as Istomin, Bolet, Arrau, Ogden, and Brendel, and working with artists such as Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Michael Barishnikov, and many singers. 

I suddenly realise I have had and still am having a career. I told all my students they must circulate and meet people and mix it all into the fabric of life. Basically one must love life and the rest falls into place. Success? A happy life! 


Learn about Kawai’s role at this year’s Sydney International Piano Competition.

Prepared by Hugh Raine

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