What began as a small gathering in the living room of a home in Courtenay, B.C. has quickly become a hit for classical music fans in Surrey and beyond.
The Classical Coffee Concert series, which has an upcoming show on Feb. 7, is the brainchild of pianist Sarah Hagen.
For the acclaimed musician, the idea of inviting classical musical fans to her home on Vancouver Island to enjoy favourites pieces and good conversation was the perfect way to beat the feeling of isolation she felt from the community. After quickly gaining a following, she decided to move to a slightly more formal venue.
“I couldn’t have guest artists performing with me in my living room, so we moved it to a local theatre in Courtenay,” she said. “We also changed the time from evening performances to the morning, so we were able to accommodate our demographic.”
In the first year, the series produced four concerts and was then picked up by another Vancouver Island theatre. Soon, there was discussion of bringing the series to the Lower Mainland, coinciding with Hagen’s move to Vancouver.
The talks grew to plans, and the Classical Coffee Concerts series at the Surrey Arts Centre began last February.
The series combines discussion with performances featuring Hagen – who doubles as host – and collaborators, such as renowned violist Martin Chalifour, who will be featured in the Feb. 7 concert.
“It provides a little more contact between artist and audience,” Hagen explained. “We have a reception with tea and sweets and it’s a time to visit with the artist and for the audience to visit amongst themselves. It’s become a community of people who like to listen to the same music.”
With words like ‘classical’ and ‘reception’ to describe the series, it may seem stiff and formal, but Hagen pointed out that it’s actually quite the opposite. Many of the discussions feature anecdotes from the performers or gossip about fellow members of the industry.
“The idea with adding the talking in between, rather than just playing music, is to engage people,” Hagen said. “Sometimes we offer up some gossipy stuff about a composer and have some fun with it. It makes it much less stiff.”
For the upcoming performance, Hagen’s guest will be Chalifour, a friend, renowned violinist and principal concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The duo will perform pieces by Mozart, Stravinsky and Mendelssohn – the composer who helped cement the duo’s bond.
“We were both performing at the same festival in Campbell River, and while we did not play together, we ended up speaking a lot. We spoke about Mendelssohn, who we both agreed was not played enough,” Hagen said.
When Hagen received a call from Chalifour before the new year, asking for directions to Vancouver Island, she seized the opportunity to invite him to perform.
“I tempted him by saying that the weather is always beautiful in February, so he didn’t have to feel bad about leaving L.A.,” she laughed.
The two are set to play Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, an arrangement of several movements from his ballet Pulcinelle, Mozart’s haunting Sonata K.304, which is played in minor key, creating a “fragile, and very delicate sound” and of course, Hagen’s favourite, Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F major.
“There is something very precious about this program,” Hagen said. “And having an artist of Martin’s calibre at this performance, I just don’t think people understand the rarity of that. For him to come here is amazing. He’s such an incredible talent and so personable. People will feel like they can talk to him and that’s a rare treat.”
With only other performance – March 14, featuring cellist Ariel Barnes – Hagen is already in the process of planning the next year, especially after receiving such a warm welcome.
“People respond in such a familiar way after a while. Usually with a series, there are about five different ensembles, but because I am in every concert, people feel like they know me and they do,” she said.
“They’re more willing to share their feelings and it creates a beautiful friendship.”
Tickets ($22.50) for the Feb. 7 show are available at the Surrey Arts Centre Box Office, 13750 88 Ave., Tuesday-Sunday, 12-5 p.m. and until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and online at https://tickets.surrey.ca
For more information on the series, visit www.surrey.ca/arts