Sarah Hagen and Brendan McLeod present Exultation at the Port Theatre on April 10. (Photos courtesy McKinnon Photography/Mike Savage)

Pianist and poet mix classical music and spoken word at the Port Theatre

Sarah Hagen and Brendan McLeod interpret Rachmaninoff in ‘Exultation’

Pianist Sarah Hagen is hoping to bring listeners closer to one of her favourite compositions by putting that music in words.

When Hagen, who hails from Courtenay but now lives in P.E.I., would tour the 13 Preludes of Opus 32 by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, she said she felt like she was “cheating the audience a little bit of that proximity” she felt to the pieces.

“I thought, what if there were words that were attached to the pieces and not really describing the pieces themselves,” she said. “Like what if there was a way to talk about music without talking about music? Somehow bringing the emotional corners to life.”

With that goal in mind, Hagen enlisted Toronto-based spoken word artist Brendan McLeod to compose a series of passages based on his impression of the music and inspired by Rachmaninoff’s life to recite in-between the opus’s preludes.

“I came to see her play it in Toronto, just by herself. She did the opus and I was floored,” McLeod said. “I’m not a classical music aficionado at all but it’s just beautiful music and she plays it beautifully so I was very excited to jump on board.”

The duo began discussing their collaboration about five years ago, Hagen said, and last year they performed it for the first time in Smithers. On April 10 they’ll debut their program, Exultation, in Nanaimo with a show at the Port Theatre.

As someone used to taking a more linear, narrative approach to writing, McLeod said it was a challenge to write from an “emotive standpoint.” He said a theme that came up in his writing was displacement, as Rachmaninoff left his native Russia at around the time of the 1917 revolution never to return and was eventually unable to play his own music due to muscle and nerve pain.

“He was displaced at different times in his life from his body and his mind and his country,” McLeod said.

Hagen said not many performers combine classical music and spoken word, and in their early shows she and McLeod didn’t know how they would fare.

“I was surprised by how vocal people were as they were experiencing it,” Hagen said. “You could hear people laughing at things Brendan said or breathing in the music and sighing and somehow it opened up people. As artists, that’s kind of all you hope for.”

WHAT’S ON … Exultation takes place at the Port Theatre on April 10 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $26 for adults, $22 for members, $12.50 for students. Post-show chat in the theatre.

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