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Building His Craft: Gus Brest van Kempen

Building His Craft: Gus Brest van Kempen

First violinist Gustaaf (Gus) Brest van Kempen began studying violin at nearly the same age as Robyn, but his path there, and from there to the Evanston Symphony, was vastly different. Gus was part of the fifth generation of his family to live in Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies, where his father was an officer in the Royal Dutch East Indies Army. Though he tried to warn the government that Japan was likely to attack and use the country’s resources for their war efforts, the Netherlands’ finances were already stretched too thin to strengthen their forces in the Dutch East Indies, and when Japan did attack in 1942, Gus’ father was among the first citizens to be arrested and imprisoned. Gus, his mother, and his brother were imprisoned in a nearby women’s camp, and while they were able to survive the deplorable conditions, including near starvation, his father was not. The family was liberated at the end of WWII and stayed with relatives for a short time before returning to the Netherlands, eventually settling in The Hague, but less than 10 years later the boys were back on the move when a great-aunt in Salt Lake City convinced their mother that the boys would have a better future there. Off they went, finishing high school and then attending college in the United States.

Travel became a theme in Gus’s life. He crossed the country to study at the University of Pennsylvania, and after earning his degree in architecture, a chance encounter with a friend’s friend introduced him to the Peace Corps. Gus ultimately joined as a volunteer architect helping to develop the newly independent Tunisia, where it just so happened that the Ford Foundation was funding a classical symphony orchestra with European musicians. Gus’ father and his father’s four siblings were all musical, a tradition which Gus and his brother carried on by taking piano lessons from their aunt, and Gus later switched to violin (his father’s instrument). By this time Gus’ skills were such that he was able to join this professional orchestra, a highlight of his musical career, but it was unfortunately disbanded at the end of its first year, when the Ford Foundation discovered that most of the audience was made up of Europeans rather than Tunisians (the intended beneficiaries).

Having lost his cellist flatmate in this unfortunate termination, Gus was forced to move. His new apartment building came to be inhabited by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who would eventually become his wife and long-time ESO Board member, Kelly Brest van Kempen. For the next decade, Gus taught architecture at the University of Utah, followed by almost another decade as an architect with the Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, coordinating their work on multiple projects for higher education in Algeria (which included living in Algiers for two and a half years).

Next Gus worked for more than two decades for The World Bank as consultant architect, guiding the creation of educational and medical facilities in Egypt, China, Guyana, Latvia, Moldova, and other far-flung locales, his proudest professional accomplishment came during this time in Tunisia, where he designed a new mosque in Hammam-Sousse, replacing a 600-year-old building that was literally falling apart. Home during his years with SOM and The World Bank was Evanston, where, in 1986, Gus was “discovered” by his neighbors who just happened to be the principal viola and principal bass of the Evanston Symphony. Though his creative pursuits may seem unrelated, Gus turns to Goethe to explain how the two are intrinsically entwined: Goethe said, “I call architecture frozen music.”

Gus Brest van Kempen

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