Igor Levit classical pianist
Igor Levit Photo by Gregor Hohenberg

It’s Gilmore Keyboard Festival time — meet two of this year’s stars.

Just after performing a powerful concert in London, classical pianist Igor Levit received some powerful news: He was the 2018 winner of the Gilmore Artist Award. The prize? An impressive $300,000 in recognition of his piano talents.

The award, conferred every four years during the biennial Kalamazoo-based Gilmore Keyboard Festival — which brings together international keyboard stars of different genres — is decided through a noncompetitive process by an anonymous six-member Artistic Advisory Committee appraising worldwide nominees unaware they are even under consideration. It is often compared to “genius grants” awarded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Levit had already planned to perform at this year’s event, which runs April 25-May 12.

“Gilmore means a lot to me,” says Levit, undecided about what he will do with the grant money. “I’ve performed in an earlier Gilmore program and in Ann Arbor, and I have beautiful memories of Michigan.

Igor Levit classical pianist
Igor Levit
Photo by Gregor Hohenberg

“The award has not affected the choice of what I will play. I wanted to play something very special and unique, and there’s no doubt that the Goldberg Variations fulfill all that as one of those iconic and incomparable works of music.”

With concerts throughout Western Michigan, the festival also will celebrate milestones — the 100th anniversary of the late composer-conductor-pianist Leonard Bernstein’s birth and the 90th birthday of pianist Leon Fleisher, who will be featured playing a Mozart concerto.

Levit, 31, was born in Russia and took to the piano by the time he was 4.

“After I happened to touch the piano and started playing it, I never stopped,” says the artist, who listened to his mother as she sat at the keyboard. “There hasn’t been a great deal of decision making. It was a natural way of doing things. Whatever music I wanted to play, I played.”

Levit, who lives in Berlin, was 8 when his family moved to Germany. He graduated from the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media with the highest score in the history of the institute. As the youngest 2005 participant at the International Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv, he won the Silver Medal, the Special Prize for Chamber Music, the Audience Award and the Special Prize for the Best Performance of the Contemporary Requiem.

“I have been to Israel very often,” says Levit, who identifies as culturally Jewish. “After the Rubinstein competition, I wanted to go back. I very much like being there.”

Levit’s performance schedule keeps him traveling to great orchestras, including the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. In 2015, Sony Classical released his third solo album featuring Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!; the album was chosen the Recording of the Year and given the Instrumental Award at the 2016 Gramophone Classical Music Awards.

“Whenever I do not have to travel for concerts, I still travel,” says Levit, who is single. “Traveling is the thing I like to do most.”

Wherever he goes, Levit stays close to the political sphere. On Nov. 9, 2016, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and before playing Beethoven, the pianist spoke out against the election of Donald Trump.

“I’ve always been a political person,” he says. “No matter what I do, I try to be an aware and responsible human being. That night, I just felt a great deal of urgency. It felt urgent for me to speak to the audience. I’m not doing that regularly.”

On a lighter side, what he does regularly is collect Jewish jokes. He says that he can’t forget them once he hears them, and he considers that a very important part of who he is. He declined, however, to repeat one for us.

Exercising some personal humor, he named his newest piano Monk after legendary jazz artist Thelonious Monk.

“I always considered Thelonious Monk not only one of the greatest jazz pianists of the 20th century but also one of the most central composers of the 20th century, not regarding any question of genre,” he says.

“Monk has always been a very important figure for me. Some of the musicians I very much admire are jazz musicians. I play jazz for myself sometimes. But not in public.”

Emmet Cohen, Jazz pianist
Emmet Cohen
Photo by John Abbott

Sharing Levit’s admiration for Monk is Emmet Cohen, a jazz pianist, composer and teacher making a second appearance at the Gilmore. Because improvisation is so much a part of Cohen’s style, no decision has yet been made on what he will play.

“A big part of what we do as jazz musicians, and what I do with my band, is consider our surroundings and let that influence how and what we present,” says Cohen, proud to be a finalist in the 2011 Thelonious Monk Competition. “We will use our repertoire as our musical context to put together a musical conversation and let the audience in on that conversation.

“I feel very strongly about playing music that is full of life, energy, swing and joy while still letting other emotions come through, whether sadness, anguish, anger or uncertainty. Hopefully, we take people on a journey using jazz standards and original music.”

Cohen, now a New Yorker, will be joined by bass player Russell Hall and drummer Evan Sherman, who are regulars in his trio.

“My band plays with the concept of making individual, unique moments, creating something that maybe never happened before and may never happen again,” Cohen sats. “It’s just a moment in time captured.”

“I feel strongly about playing music that is full of life while still letting other emotions come through, whether sadness, anguish, anger or uncertainty.” — Emmet Cohen

Cohen’s parents started him with the Suzuki method when he was 3 years old and living in Florida. Advanced lessons continued after the family moved to New Jersey; he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami Frost School of Music and a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music.

Performances have reached from jazz clubs to the vast spaces of prominent festivals, including those based in Monterey, Newport and Edinburgh. This Labor Day weekend, he will join the musicians performing at the festival in Detroit, a city where he has often appeared and instructed young people, many at Cass Technical High School.

“My trio performed at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival a year ago,” he says. “That was a very spiritual experience. I got a chance to play in the holiest city in the world. We went to the Western Wall and prayed for our music, families and lives. It brought us together as a band and fed into the music.”

With a commitment to jazz pioneers and connecting them to young musicians, Cohen has launched “Masters Legacy Series,” a set of recordings honoring legendary jazz artists. He is both pianist and producer of the albums. The first volume features drummer Jimmy Cobb, and the second features bassist Ron Carter.

Cohen performs with George Coleman, Russell Hall and Bryan Carter. Jazz pianist. Piano.
Cohen performs with George Coleman, Russell Hall and Bryan Carter.
  • “When I did research on Ron, I learned his full name is Ronald Levin Carter, and I asked how he got a middle name that is Jewish,” Cohen recalls. “He said he came from a family of nine children living in Ferndale, and they all went to a Jewish pharmacist who would give them what they needed even when they couldn’t pay. They were so grateful that they named Ron after the pharmacist.

“I thought that was a great story of different cultures, religions and races coming together at a time not particularly known for that in the 1930s. We thought it would be awesome to record a Hebrew prayer because of that and put an arrangement together titled “Hatzi Kaddish.”

With a great respect for musical standards, Cohen, 27 and engaged, also composes. He has perfect pitch, so he can hear music in his head and hum it into his phone recorder before working on it at a piano.

When returning to Michigan and the Gilmore, Cohen looks to a concert format he considers very special because of the interest shown by the people participating and attending.

“The trio represents all the styles of jazz,” he says. “It’s all performed in a natural way because we’ve internalized the music.”


  • Igor Levit will perform after a pre-concert talk at 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 9, at Stetson Chapel, Kalamazoo. $30.
  • Emmet Cohen will perform at noon Monday, May 7, at the Civic Auditorium in Kalamazoo and noon Tuesday, May 8, at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation,
    Battle Creek. $15.
  • Leon Fleisher will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 9, in Chenery Auditorium, Kalamazoo. $18-$38.

For more information on these and other concerts, go to thegilmore.org or call (269) 342-1166.

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