Classical pianist wraps up van tour of Alaska

One wouldn’t normally associate places like Cooper Landing, Healy or Ninilchik as destinations for classical musicians, but for accomplished pianist Miki Sawada that’s exactly the reason she packed a piano into a U-Haul van and hit the road.

The Brooklyn-based musician and educator made over a dozen stops on her “Gather Hear Alaska” tour, hauling a rented Yamaha AvantGrand piano into schools, cafés and community centers, finishing in Anchorage on Friday with a performance at The Church of Love in Spenard.

Sawada’s setlist covered a wide range of music including standards by Bach and Beethoven, avant-garde audience participation pieces and contemporary compositions.

“One of the greatest things about classical music is that sheer magnitude… it just kind of hits you like a wave and I think that’s really special,” Sawada said.

The goal of the tour was to examine the piano’s role as a gathering place, a pastime now relegated mostly to history books and movies.

“In my dream world, there would be a piano in every house,” Sawada said, laughing.

Sawada hoped to show classical music’s continued relevance in modern society and wanted listeners to walk away with an unexpected experience and a greater appreciation for the music. At the very least, Sawada tried to give listeners a moment of to just sit back, unplug and listen.

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Born in Japan, Sawada has spent most of her life in the U.S. She got her start playing piano as a child and eventually studied music at Northwestern University and Yale. Piano has taken Sawada all over the world including performances at Carnegie Hall and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, among various festivals and showcases.

“I guess by traveling, I’ve realized just how many places have a potential for more music,” Sawada said.

Living in New York one can get all the music they can handle, but it’s the musical deserts Sawada is taking aim at.

“I think it’s important for us, as classical musicians, to make sure we have many different outlets for reaching people,” Sawada said.

Classical pianist Miki Sawada takes her passion on the road to musical deserts through “Gather Hear Alaska.” Photo credit: Andrew Rizzardi (Courtesy of “Gather Hear Alaska”)

While she would love to just stay in one place, Sawada has to go where the gig is. Despite her claims to the contrary, the pull of world is still present.

“I think I’m in denial that I still have [a wanderlust], but clearly I haven’t, because I’m [in Alaska],” Sawada said.

The inspiration for “Gather Hear” came after Sawada looked into the possibility of doing a 50-state tour, but the logistics of including Alaska on that venture would have made it much more difficult. An outdoors lover, she decided to ditch the Lower 48 for now and just focus on the largest state.

Earlier this year Sawada got to work investigating potential stops in Alaska. Thanks to Google Maps, she was able to figure out which communities would be small enough to necessitate her main goal while having a population large enough to draw a crowd. Even after beginning the “Gather Hear” tour, Sawada was still working out the kinks.

“This tour feels like it was more like, less of a display of virtuosity on piano and more of like a virtuosity of planning,” Sawada said.

Traveling with a couple of different documentary filmmakers Sawada kept tour updates on the “Gather Hear Alaska” Facebook page. Photos show intimate performances in diverse venues including stops in schools for presentations.

She said while many of the places on the tour have vibrant art communities, she hopes that they were inspired by her performances.

“I hope they’re proud of what they have going on, but maybe if they don’t have so much, maybe they’ll do more,” Sawada said.

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