When I catch up with concert pianist Sarah Hagen, she is sitting on the floor of an airport concourse, halfway between solo gigs. She apologizes and lets me know she has a slight case of food poisoning. Hagen immediately comes across as humble and humorous, and it is not long before we are laughing over Google Meets. “I like to tell people that I play hardcore classical music. It’s cooler,” she tells me. As a stream of airport zombies trips over her, I ask if she has her own distinctive style amongst other concert pianists.
“I don’t know,” she answers. “I play worse than others.”
She’s joking, of course. Raised in the Comox Valley, Hagen has played piano in Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, and Italy, and across the entirety of Canada, where she now calls Prince Edward Island home. She has completed five residencies at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. She’s even played New York City’s iconic Carnegie Hall … solo.
So how did this hardcore piano virtuoso become one of Canada’s best? “I started lessons at seven years old with a neighborhood piano teacher in Courtenay,” she says. “But a family friend told me recently I was playing before that.” She mimics a child reaching up to the keys above. “Courtenay has always had really strong education for piano,” she continues. “I had three wonderful teachers there and that foundation was invaluable. For four years, I worked with a very tough teacher in Comox, and she taught me discipline, and then I studied with Christine Purvis, who was actually more of a harpsichordist and organist, so we played a lot of Bach.”
This foundation of discipline—and getting comfortable with one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music—allowed Hagen to become a well-rounded player quickly. “Bach teaches technique and phrase and colour. He’s the bible of classical piano.”
She believes growing up in the Valley shaped her music in a unique way: “I think that if I had lived in Vancouver, I probably would have gone to a really fancy teacher, and I probably would have done a lot of competitions.” Like most of us, she became a product of the place she was planted. “The Comox Valley is so beautiful, and so beauty becomes a goal for everything you do. That has shaped me. Whenever I’m playing in a place like Toronto and I meet other people from the West Coast, we all have two things in common: we need to be by the beach, and we have a different sense of aesthetic.”
While her incredible talent required ambition most of us will only covet, Hagen’s laid-back, West-Coast spirit has always influenced her career choices. “In my late 20s, I had this big realization that I’m not ambitious,” she says with a healthy lack of shame. When I tell her I feel my own ambition has dissipated in recent years, she explains, “It was very comforting for me. Logically I should have moved to Toronto at that point, but I wanted to know my parents as an adult, so I moved home. My father died three years later.”
Sarah’s father, Stan, served as MLA for the Comox riding from 1986 to 1991 and again from 2001 until 2009. He is still fondly remembered by many as a voice for advanced education and for North Island College. In August 2023, Courtenay named a nature park after him.
As her career gained momentum, Hagen found herself playing solo with smaller groups. “I played chamber music, so [I was] playing with one or two other people,” she says. “I did that in Sweden through a lot of my 20s, but then at some point in my later 30s, I realized I like travelling alone a lot. I have a new goal to not tour in the Prairies in February.” She laughs. “I feel like I’ve reached a new level where I can say ‘No, thank you.’”
Beauty, magic, music, and a distrust of ambition—the soundtrack of Sarah Hagen’s life lifts off in ways few do.
The voice of the airline god statics and spits over the PA, interrupting our conversation. Sarah unnecessarily apologizes again, and we make plans to connect later. I get one last question in before she must fly, asking her if she writes her own music. She says yes, but that she has always been drawn to the pages of others, including favourites like Sergei Rachmaninoff and Cécile Chaminade.
“I like the pulling of notes from the score,” she says with a vibrant smile. “As a kid, it seemed like it was another world for me. I love the magic of it.”