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Music Director: Van Gilmer

Van Gilmer, renowned vocal soloist, composer, and choral director, serves as Music Director at the Bahá'í House of Worship.  Gilmer came to Wilmette in 2005 at the invitation of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, and has since then lovingly drilled the resident choir members, expanded their repertoire, and in 2007 established a Music Festival that annually draws more than 200 singers from around the globe.  Gilmer brings along a distinguished music background to this position.

As a child in Greensboro, North Carolina, Van performed as a soloist on church occasions, at weddings and funerals, and at social functions which included events at the Trinity AME Zion Church, the United Church of Christ, and the National Urban League.

There was always a piano in the Gilmer household, and at age seven the young Gilmer took lessons from a family friend, Professor Walter F. Carlson, of North Carolina A&T State University. The piano was the first of many instruments he would master. He went on to play first chair clarinet in Junior and Senior High School, and later in college.

Van Gilmer attended North Carolina A&T State University, where he received formal voice training under Dr. Howard T. Pearsall. During his college career,  Gilmer was the student director and soloist for the university choir. He also played oboe in the college orchestra, clarinet in the marching band, and took private lessons on the university auditorium chapel organ, on which he learned eight little preludes and fugues by J.S. Bach.

What makes these accomplishments even more remarkable is that Gilmer performed all this music while doing course work in his major field of study--Architectural Engineering.  In those days, he believed that engineering offered him wider career choices than music education. He graduated with a degree in Architectural Engineering and spent 37 years in federal civilian service in a variety of engineering and management positions before retiring in 2004.

Throughout those years, Van Gilmer kept one foot in the music world and developed several music personas. He led the songs at civil rights rallies during his college days in the South in 1963 and 1964.  After he became a Bahá'í in 1967, Gilmer started composing to fill some of the void in Bahá’í music literature that he felt was missing after leaving the rich African-American music of the southern Baptist church.  Some of these early compositions were in an easy-to-teach call and response style, drawn from his African-American experience.


Until the early 1990s, Gilmer performed like a folk singer, with his guitar. His family often traveled with him to performances, and his children learned his songs after hearing them so often.  At one particular PTA meeting, Van, accompanied by wife, Cookie, and children, Sean and Kim, sang “"If We Ever Needed Love"” and “"We are a Family”" together.  A singing group—The Gilmer Family—was born. Gilmer and son, Sean, collaborated to write parts for the family members that would appeal to a wide audience and also called on their experience as Americans from African descent.

While  Gilmer’s own musical tastes are broad, and he tries to expose his groups to “360 degrees of music,” some of his greatest acclaim has come from his “Bahá’í Gospel” styled performances and compositions.  Gilmer began performing Gospel music relatively late, and almost by accident, when he was asked to direct the first formal Bahá’í Gospel Choir at the Second Bahá'í World Congress held at the Jacob Javits Center in New York in 1992. Though he had had a rich experience in listening to great Gospel music during his childhood, he had never sung or written it. He calls his foray into performing and composing Gospel music, "learning by full immersion.” 

The next years were filled with forming and directing the National Bahá'í Gospel Choir, the touring Bahá'í Gospel Ensemble, and the Metropolitan Washington Bahá'í Chorale.

Van Gilmer has performed as soloist with choirs on tours in Russia, India, Europe, and the United States, and has twice appeared at Carnegie Hall. His rich and soulful tenor voice has been heard in concerts and recordings of the Voices of Bahá, a 100-member choir that performed with the Maly Moscow Symphony, the Slovak Radio Symphony, the Warsaw Philharmonic, the Czech National Symphony and the Budapest Symphony.  During a 2004 tour of Western Europe, which he directed,   Gilmer produced his first CD entitled, “The Bahá’í Gospel Choir LIVE in Luxembourg.”

Gilmer's excellence in performing, directing and composing has been widely acknowledged. In 2001 he was awarded the Gold Prize at the Johannes Brahms International Choral Festival in Germany for directing the Voices of Bahá Gospel Choir in a program including one of his own compositions. Gilmer was the recipient of the 2006 Independent Music Award's "Best Gospel Song" for "My God, My Adored One."  Also in 2006, Van Gilmer was honored with an invitation from the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. to direct a 200-voice combined choir for their 26th annual concert held at the Washington Hebrew Congregation.

Van Gilmer's compositions include "We Have Come to Sing Praises," "O God, Guide Me," "I’m So Glad,"  "O Thou Compassionate Lord," "Cause Me to Taste the Divine Sweetness," "He has Come Back," and "Soon Will All That Dwell on Earth."

Gospel literally means “good news,” and award-winning composer, director, pianist and soloist, Van Gilmer loves sharing the “good news” music of the Bahá'í Faith with the world.

From interview by Joyce Litoff

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