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Arden Theatre hosts classical music concert with a twist

Classical concert pianist Sarah Hagen injects her brand of humour into music

There is no one quite like Sarah Hagen, a classical concert musician. She not only plays the music of history’s greatest composers such as Rachmaninoff and Chopin with keyboard virtuosity and emotional sensitivity.  

In her one-woman show, Perk up, pianist, the Toronto-based musician injects witty one-liners and a few well-placed groaners while channeling beautiful music. Revealing a different side of the stereotypical self-important classical musician, she delights in storytelling and tossing about jabs of light mockery. 

For instance, when a cellphone rings during a live performance, an entertainer will either ignore it or deliver a snappy comeback. As a pianist-comedian, Hagen does neither. She picks up a banana strategically placed on her piano and pretends to speak to the caller. 

“The audience doesn’t always see the humour, but I think it’s funny,” laughs Hagen who performs Perk up, pianist at the Arden Theatre on Saturday, March 4 as part of a nine-show Alberta tour. 

Yes, the elegantly attired musician enjoys throwing a few giggles into her theatrical concert. But she's also a serious pianist with four albums at her fingertips. In fact, the latest album, Bach's Goldberg Variations, was just nominated on Feb. 15 as Classical Recording of the Year for the 2022 East Coast Music Awards. 

For more than a decade, the poised musician played concert halls across the world, including twice at New York’s Carnegie Hall. But by 2016, the grind and overpowering exhaustion of burnout took its toll. 

“Touring is hard on the body. You get there and prep for the next day. I didn’t know how to set boundaries and limits,” Hagen said. 

She stopped playing and spent time teaching and developing personal projects. One of those was Perk up, pianist

“I wrote the show about burnout. It was a way to reach people, and a lot of people can relate. If you can laugh about a difficult situation, you can heal,” she said.  

“[The show] gives people an insider view of a classical pianist touring and my dealings with life. One thing I discovered was that it was hard to date when you tour. But I only talk about the bad dates,” she chuckles. 

Working with an incomplete draft, the new playwright opened at the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival. A year later she delivered a more polished version at the Edmonton Fringe Festival where people booed with delight at her bad puns. 

“All the shows were sold out except for one at midnight. Some of the best advice I ever received from a friend was, ‘Don’t worry about being perfect. The audience will be honest with you.’ I felt free and I didn’t worry about the reviews.” 

Perk up, pianist has changed direction and become drier since its initial Toronto debut. She even slides in some sexy innuendos.  

“There’s so much humour behind classical music. And this is a link to classical music.”

The Arden Theatre is at 5 St. Anne Street. Tickets are $28 plus fees online at   

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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