Pianissimo perfecto

Todd MacLean
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Sarah Hagen demonstrates her passion for the music during a concert in Charlottetown

Last Friday evening, an appreciative audience at UPEI’s Dr. Steel Recital Hall was treated to a concert featuring Sarah Hagen on piano.

Hailing from B.C., this pianist has been heard in concert halls and on the airwaves throughout North America and Europe, with recent highlights being an appearance on Bravo Television and a solo performance at Carnegie Hall last May.

Her solo album, Glass House Dancing was nominated for classical recording of the year at the 2009 Western Canadian Music Awards, and she is a bright force on the West Coast arts scene as she performs, lectures and records regularly, while being the spark behind various explorative music-related artistic initiatives.

I’d like to just take a moment now to zero in on that last bit of info before I move on with my description of the concert because it is evident that the level of passion that Hagen possesses — when it comes to experiencing, interpreting and expressing art — is something quite extraordinary.

It does seem to be this deep level of artistic understanding, and ability to communicate on this level — either through words or through artistic expression — that truly sets her apart as a pianist and musical artist.

We received a strong taste of this right away that night as Hagen greeted us and introduced the evening’s first musical selection, Robert Schumann’s Papillons.

As Hagen went into a full description of Papillons, complete with thoughtful analysis on some of the piece’s nuances, it was immediately apparent that this would be a piano concert beyond the norm.

Her hands swooping down onto the keys of the grand piano like a cascading waterfall, Hagen began the first section of Schumann’s Op. 2 and enveloped the room instantaneously, welcoming us into the world of its 12 movements, each with their own distinct personality.

Musicians do need to be actors, in a certain sense. And just like Oscars are often handed out to those who take on the most demanding roles where the most elaborate displays of their artistic skills are showcased, it is similar with music, in that you can clearly observe how well-developed a musician’s skills are — in the ways of embodying and expressing the art — when a more challenging piece is taken on.

And, from this opening of the very quirky Papillons through to the treats that the rest of the program brought about, I can definitely say that Hagen is one of the most expressive piano players that I have ever seen perform and the creative liberty that she seems to take at the keyboard is an exceptional display that lures you in profoundly.

In particular, I must mention, too, that she has a remarkable ability to play in pianissimo (extremely quiet, which is very difficult to do in a sustained and uniform way at the keyboard) and when they came about, these moments shawled the room in a beautiful peace.

But what does make Hagen’s performance all the more engaging is her insightful and elaborate introductory discussion before each new part of the program as this establishes the all-important relationship with the listener and the music even before one note of it is played.

Hagen had actually split open one of her fingers recently, and thus opted to shorten the evening’s program just slightly in order to not overstrain her healing injury. As a result, she refrained from playing the originally-scheduled Debussy selection just before intermission.

But the second half was certainly a delight of piano prowess, as we were given the set of Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32 by Sergei Rachmaninov in its entirety. And what an epic kaleidoscope of musical colours it was to experience.

As Hagen struck the last note from the Preludes, after the culmination of a storm of emotion-filled notes in D-flat major, she ascended from the piano bench and bowed, as the audience promptly followed suit, rising up in enthusiastic standing ovation.

For more on Hagen, to listen to her music and to check out one of her artistic initiatives called Pro’ject Sound, an innovative performance project featuring stunning photography and live piano music, visit www.sarahhagen.com.

Next week: I will be out on (a much-needed!) vacation so Out and About will take a break, returning on Friday, March 21.

Todd MacLean is a local freelance writer and musician. If you have a comment or suggestion for a review, you can get in touch with him at tmaclean@theguardian.pe.ca or at 626-1242. But he won’t be offended if you don’t.

Todd's picks

1. Donna Washington – Studio 1, Confederation Centre, today at 7:30 p.m. and the Harbourfront Theatre, Summerside, tomorrow at 2 p.m. Washington is an accomplished American storyteller, author and recording artist.

2. Charlottetown Jazz Ensemble – Rodd Charlottetown Hotel, today at 8 p.m.

3. Sons of the Island Comedy Show – The Guild, today at 9 p.m., featuring Francios Weber, Taylor Carver, Eric Payne, Sam MacDonald and Justin Shaw.

4. Racoon Bandit and Dylan Menzie – Baba's Lounge, today at 10:30 p.m.

5. dance umbrella: No Strings Attached – The Mack, tomorrow at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

6. Chef of the Year gala dinner – Delta Prince Edward, tomorrow at 6 p.m. The Children's Wish Foundation presents this six-course dnner hosted by chef Michael Smith.

7. Home Routes: Evie Ladin and Keith Terry – Elmwood Heritage Inn, tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. and 10 Emery Rd., Summerside, Sunday at 7:30 p.m. The duo from Oakland, Calif., features Ladin on banjo and vocals and Terry on bass, body music and vocals.

8. Women and Song 150: IWD Cabaret – The Guild, tomorrow at 8 p.m. A variety of women singer/songwriters, including Catherine MacLellan, Meaghan Blanchard, Ashley Condon, Irish Mythen and Drea MacDonald will take to the stage in celebration of International Women's Day.

Organizations: Carnegie Hall, Glass House Dancing, The Guild Confederation Centre Harbourfront Theatre Rodd Charlottetown Hotel The Mack Wish Foundation Heritage Inn

Geographic location: Charlottetown, North America, Europe West Coast Summerside Oakland

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