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Gerard Willems AM (born Gerardus Maria Willems, 19 August 1946) is an Australian classical pianist and teacher. He was the first Australian pianist to record on CD the complete series of 32 piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven. He also recorded Beethoven's five piano concertos and the Diabelli Variations, and is the only pianist to do so using an Australian Stuart & Sons piano. This series of recordings constitutes the largest classical music recording project ever undertaken in Australia, and Willems became the best selling classical artist in Australia's recording history.
Gerard Willems was born and grew up in Tilburg, Netherlands. He was named after his maternal grandfather, a church organist, composer and piano builder. He received a scholarship from the Brabants Conservatorium, but the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 caused his parents, fearful of a domino effect, to migrate to Australia when he was 12, in 1958. Until he was 17, they lived in a migrant camp near Wollongong; his father died in the camp. He entered the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying under Gordon Watson. After graduation, he was called up for national service, managing to convince the army he was best suited as a musician, and he played the clarinet in army bands. Willems was employed as the touring pianist for the Australian Ballet, and travelled on tours with dancers such as Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He won the Queen Victoria Piano Competition, and later studied under Greville Rothon (assistant to Claudio Arrau) in Munich.
He made debuts in London 1974, Munich 1977 and Amsterdam 1978. He returned to Sydney in 1981 and has taught as Senior Lecturer, and later Chair of the Keyboard Unit, at the Sydney Conservatorium 1981-2008 and is currently an Associate Professor at Sydney University.
He founded the piano trio Mozartrois, and with them recorded the complete Mozart piano trios, as part of the bicentenary of Mozart’s death in 1991. He has appeared in lieder recitals and chamber music concerts.
Gerard Willems is perhaps best known for his recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas, which were released in 1999 and 2000. These won successive ARIA Music Awards, in 1999 and 2000, the first album by a pianist to win the Classical section of the Awards. Although he is not the first pianist to record the complete Beethoven sonatas in Australia, he is the first to do so on CD. Michael Brimer recorded them in a series of live concerts in 1986 for ABC Classic FM, which were intended for commercial release on cassette tape, although due to a technical issue only a part of the series was released.
In 2001, he won the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Australian Musical Scholarship. He toured Israel and held the Hephzibah Menuhin Chair in Piano as Visiting Professor at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem.
His recordings of the five Beethoven piano concertos appeared in 2001. These featured Sinfonia Australis under the conductor Antony Walker. The Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor" was also filmed for DVD release, a first for this concerto.
A recording of Mozart favourites, including the Variations on the Dutch National Anthem, appeared in 2006.
In 2010 he recorded Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, again the first Australian pianist to do so. He has used Stuart & Sons pianos for all his Beethoven recordings. In October 2010, a newly built Stuart & Sons piano containing 102 keys, 14 more than the usual quota, was played for the first time in a public performance (Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1). Gerard Willems was the pianist.
In 2001 Gerard Willems was named the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Music Scholar by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.
Willems has two children, Marcel and Louise, and lives with his second wife Eva Frey in Sydney.
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The Beethoven Obsession interview (ABC Classical)