In Conversation with Gerard Willems AM

Catherine Peake talks to Gerard Willems about his music.

Gerard Willems is best known as the Dutch-born pianist whose recordings of Beethoven’s piano works made him the best-selling classical musician in Australia. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Centenary Medal, and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2012. He continues to perform and teach in Australia and internationally.

As one of Australia’s foremost concert pianists, you have performed and recorded the work of the First Viennese School extensively. What is it that draws you to this repertoire?

Ever since my teenage years I have been fascinated with the music of the first Viennese School. What inspired me was a quote from the great German pianist Arthur Schnabel on being asked why he was so obsessed by the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert: ‘this music is so much better than you can ever play it’. 

his concept threw the challenge in my lap and I decided while still a teenager to make it my life’s passion. In my concerts I have always included some music from this period and I have grown as an artist with the depth of it. My feeling is that the formalism of Sonata and Rondo form, inherited from Haydn, gives the performer unlimited choices of interpretation. That appeals to me greatly.

Fine artists can usually be identified by their interpretation of a Mozart slow movement of a sonata or concerto. Every note counts and this gives the performer a deep sense of responsibility. You have to sleep, eat and drink this music before you can play it.

This great passion has created some fabulous recording possibilities for me, such as a 14-CD box set of Beethoven sonatas and concertos etc, and several CDs of the music of Mozart. 

Your role in teaching and working with young musicians has been and continues to be a significant part of your career. What are the highlights of your work in this area?

It has been a privilege and joy to have imparted
my philosophy and attitudes towards music to students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music for the past forty years. It is a very responsible task to inspire students so as not to disturb their basic talent, passion and above all enthusiasm. 

I have been lucky to have had students come to me from Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Europe, the United States, and of course Asia. 

Each student has to be treated with a deep commitment to build on what they have already achieved. Several of my students have done well in national as well as international competitions, including the Vienna Musikverein Competition and the Carnegie Hall Piano Competition in New York. Some are now working in places such as UCLA, the Lyric Opera in Chicago and American Ballet Theatre, and some have performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

I also enjoy giving lectures to inspire people to gain confidence and perform under pressure, such as in the Executive Master of Business Administration course at the University of Sydney.

That is a great pleasure.

The pandemic completely changed the landscape during 2020 and into 2021. How have you managed the challenges and opportunities of this time?

The COVID pandemic has had an effect on my performing life, but I have had the opportunity to give several digital concerts for the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall that has made it possible to present concerts all over the world. I have received congratulatory messages from as far away as USA, Norway, Germany, Netherlands and France. It is great to have taken part in this new technology where you literally have no contact with an audience. It is rather awe-inspiring as you’re not aware of who is listening. A new challenge!

What projects do you have planned for the future?

The future is uncertain as it is difficult to know where the world is going, but I will continue to inspire and assist younger artists where I can and help them to achieve their goals in life. This year I will adjudicate in the City of Sydney Eisteddfod as well as in Wollongong. I retired in 2018 from my position at the Sydney Conservatorium but I am still well motivated to help where I can. I also have several concerts to prepare which makes me continue to grow and learn. Listening to music is my great joy, as is spending time with my three-year-old Clara. Life is wonderful!

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