While strains of USU’s big annual outdoor concert drift across Logan on Thursday night, a more intimate music experience will be occurring inside a small building on Federal Avenue, where classical pianist Miki Sawada is making a stop on her unique “Gather Hear Tour.”
Although she’s no stranger to concert halls and music conservatories, Sawada four years ago was inspired to load her piano in a van and bring live classical music to everyday people in small-town America — playing in cafes, libraries and other community gathering places with the aim of making “meaningful human connections” in a time when many people are divided across socioeconomic and political lines.
These aren’t your typical classical music concerts, where silence and stillness are demanded of the audience. Sawada tries to create a more interactive and casual experience, and all ages are welcome.
Her 6-11 p.m. visit to WhySound at 30 Federal Ave. in Logan will be coupled with the music venue’s monthly “Open Mic Art Night,” where painting supplies are provided for the audience to make their own creations while listening to music.
“I’m very excited. I think it should be really fun, relaxed, almost like a party,” Sawada said in a phone call with The Herald Journal on Tuesday.
The New York-based pianist and music professor plans to mingle and play a few short pieces in the early evening, then finish the night with a “proper set” that includes compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt, coupled with more modern classical works.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of these for the local audience will be a composition titled “Utah Hot Springs” that was commissioned by Sawada from University of Utah music professor Elisabet Curbelo.
“That’s a piece that’s about Utah specifically,” Sawada said. “It’s about the hot springs in the state, it’s about climate change, it’s about the drought, and then it actually also involves audience participation.”
WhySound co-owner Dan Fields said combining Sawada’s appearance with the open mic and art night seemed a natural fit.
“We were looking for a good date for the art night, and it was within a few days of when she was trying to have her concert, so I figured more people would be there for her performance if we combined them,” Fields said.
Although WhySound’s regular shows tend more toward contemporary music, Fields says he welcomes the chance to showcase something different.
“I think her mission is a very valid one where classical music is such an incredible thing and should be heard by all types of audiences, and I really appreciate that she’s bringing it outside of the conservatories and out to where more people are used to going to hear music in their communities,” he said.
It all started in Alaska in 2017, when Sawada did 21 shows in 15 towns. Often clad in a flannel shirt and jeans, she played and interacted with a broad mix of Alaskans, from teachers and children to rugged outdoorsmen.
From there she toured Massachusetts and West Virginia and is now traveling Utah, with 12 stops planned, including in Vernal, Moab, Kearns and Cedar City, among other towns. Eventually, she’d like to take the Gather Hear Tour to all 50 states.
How is classical music received by ears more accustomed to rock, pop and country-Western? Surprisingly well, from what Sawada has seen.
“Before I started the tour I didn’t know the answer to that question. I really had no idea because I had only lived in the world of concert halls and conservatories, and I didn’t know how the general public would respond,” she said. “But as soon as I went on the Alaska tour, I just realized how much it’s just a human thing to appreciate the beauty of sound and the beauty of classical music. It moves us in a very almost primitive way. It’s just amazing how many people enjoy classical music when it’s presented in a way that they want to engage with it.”
Sawada doesn’t charge money for her shows but is traveling with the help of various grants and a GoFundMe page, as well as donations from audiences. She usually stays in the homes of local hosts, which in Logan will be that of USU music professor Lauren Hunt, a French horn player and musicologist.
Beyond sharing music, Sawada — whose first name, Miki, rhymes with Ricky — has used the Gather Hear Tours to learn as much as she can about the places she visits and connect with locals on multiple levels. An avid runner and participant in ultramarathons, Sawada takes in mountain trails whenever possible, and in Logan she’s hoping to initiate a regular running element for all tour stops.
“I want to get to know the people and the land through running, and I’m trying to start a running club where I try to get locals to run with me and show me around their town and talk to them and get to know people that way,” she said.
Cache Valley runners interested in connecting with Sawada this week can speak to her during Thursday’s show.