When classical pianist Miki Sawada sat down earlier this month for her first live performance in over a year, the first notes rang out to an audience of a few human beings and too many seagulls to count. It was an unseasonably chilly afternoon in New Bedford’s Custom House Square, and not many people had heard about the event.
But every time Sawada looked up, she noticed the audience getting bigger. Passersby paused in their tracks. One man on a bicycle stopped for a while, rode off, then circled back around. And even through the traffic and the cries of seagulls, the intent silence of listeners was unmistakable.
“That’s the magic ‘Gather Hear’ silence that I love,” said Sawada in a recent phone interview from her Brighton home. It was the rare day off from her month-long tour of Massachusetts, where she’s playing free outdoor concerts everywhere from North Adams to Martha’s Vineyard.
To understand why that means so much to Sawada, one has to go back to the origins of the “Gather Hear” tour, her project that takes classical piano out of the concert hall and into the community. After the 2016 presidential election, Sawada (a Japanese citizen who grew up in several countries) decided she hadn’t seen enough of the US, and she decided to tour all 50 states with a piano in tow. Her venues would not be concert halls, but local gathering spaces.
She began with Alaska, a state she’d never visited, and assembled a tour itinerary by cold-emailing a bevy of organizers. She had no idea what response her concerts would provoke.
“I thought people might be angry that I was there,” she said. “I didn’t know if they would welcome a stranger, and I’m always self-conscious about if I’m imposing classical music on people, especially if people think it’s elitist, or they have certain associations with it. So I was a little nervous.”
Her fears were unfounded. At every stop in Alaska, she found eager listeners and community musicians to collaborate with. The same was true of West Virginia, where she toured in 2018.
“People are often like, you’re a foreigner and you like this country so much that you’re doing this?” Sawada said. “But I was so grateful to come back to the States [after living in Japan]. This country is the place that has let me be who I am.”
Like all performing musicians, Sawada was forced off the road by the pandemic, and her plan to make Massachusetts the third “Gather Hear” state was pushed back by several months. But because her pop-up setup (a hybrid piano and small PA system) allows her to play outside, she has become one of the first musicians to hit the road again as vaccination starts to loosen COVID-19′s grip on daily life. Sawada has two more states (Utah and Mississippi) in the works for the near future.
A May 9 concert in the backyard of West Medford Community Center allowed for only a few seated attendees, but a steady procession of passersby on foot and bicycles stopped to hear music by Florence Price, Franz Liszt, and local composer Ariel Friedman. Neighbors listened from nearby yards, and teenagers shooting hoops in Dugger Park wandered across the street. One older woman pushing a toddler in a toy car stopped and bounced the kid to the rhythm.
West Medford Community Center board president Brian Collins hadn’t heard of Sawada before the concert, but he was thrilled with the outcome. “You don’t often hear classical pianists coming by,” he said after the show. “This was such a great way to bring people together.”
COVID precautions have forced Sawada to re-imagine some of the foundations on which she built her previous shows. She’s no longer collaborating with locals at each stop. She’s sleeping at home, so she doesn’t get to share conversation over a meal with her hosts, which was always a favorite part of life on the road.
She has found new ways to connect. On this tour, she takes a break between movements of the first piece to pass out small cards with the prompt “Before I die, I want to…” and asks everyone to fill them out. During the next piece — the newly commissioned “Before I Die…” by Friedman, inspired by the work of artist Candy Chang — Sawada periodically pauses to read them aloud. I want to meet my grandkids, someone wrote. To see our country return to sanity. To hug my family. To go to Disney again and to visit my grandparents in Japan.
“I feel like as a society, we’re just going to push for re-opening so quickly, and we’re not really going to have time to process what we went through,” Sawada said. “I want at least those 15 minutes to be a time when we can collectively reflect on the past year.”
GATHER HEAR MASSACHUSETTS
Featuring pianist Miki Sawada. Upcoming stops include Martha’s Vineyard (May 25) and Roxbury (May 27). Find a complete schedule at gatherhear.com
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.