Special Reports

MA 30 The Influencers: Pierre van der Westhuizen

December 1, 2015 | By Richard S. Ginnell

Cleveland International Piano Competition

Pierre van der Westhuizen—concert pianist and president/CEO of the Cleveland International Piano Competition since 2011—has made great strides in raising the prestige, profile, and programming of the competition. He succeeded Karen Knowlton, who is credited with pushing the competition, whose origins stretch back to 1975, into the big time by engaging the Cleveland Orchestra for the final rounds.

Van der Westhuizen, who hails from the town of Heidelberg in South Africa, remembers being impressed by the Cleveland competition upon attending a few early rounds shortly after arriving in America in 2001. He got his first teaching job at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, OH (a coincidence), where he started a piano festival, a recital series, and a concerto competition to help recruit students. “I found myself enjoying those aspects of the job more and more and more,” he said when interviewed on the film Living The Classical Life. “So when this (the Cleveland post) came along, it was at the right time.”

His accomplishments in the job are many. By moving the event to University Circle in a newly renovated concert hall at the Cleveland Museum of Art, he instantly raised the competition’s profile. Two years ago he added a festival component, including social events, master classes, guest artist recitals, films, and discussion groups, making it a richer experience for particpants and audiences alike. He negotiated the rights to live stream the final-round concerto performances with The Cleveland Orchestra, after years of only streaming solo rounds. He’s added a chambermusic phase to the finals, widening evaluation criteria for both contestants and judges. And he’s raised funds to increase the first prize cash award from $50,000 to $75,000, as well as adding a CD and expanding complimentary management, from two years to three.

He has also brought an increased emphasis on fairness and routinely reaches out to participants, greeting them backstage and wishing them well.

Diane Wittry



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