After debuting a piece with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra this year, one of Alaska’s youngest composers came home to Haines with a grand-piano-sized problem — a looming concerto competition and no symphony to practice with.

There was one person he could count on to help.

Returning to Haines from the University of Fairbanks for Christmas, 22-year old composer Scott Hansen desperately needed a very specific tool for his work. Luckily, knew where to find one — actually, two.

In her living room, his longtime music teacher Nancy Nash has what he’s looking for.

“We put them in the house right before we had a big fire in 1990. The firemen risked their lives coming in to throw tarps over the pianos. They put the fire out upstairs, but all the hot water came down and would have ruined both pianos.”

Luckily for him, the instruments were saved: he started lessons at seven, for just a half hour every other week. One of nine siblings growing up on a family farm, he was homeschooled until junior year when he convinced the school district to let him take one class: band.

“Coming from Haines, I had a very small window of what music was, what it could be,” Hansen says. “I mean, our high school band had eight people in it. ”

But it was enough to open that small window. Music stopped being a solitary pursuit as he attended Alaska’s student music festivals, and composed for the Haines High School band. The more he played with others, the more he fell in love with music.

That makes sense to Nash. For her, Hansen’s part of a chain that’s genealogical, from her teacher’s teachers all the way down to her youngest students: an extended family of pianists.

“My youngest student, doing a duet with me, you know, Twinkle Twinkle or chopsticks or something, if we are playing side by side on a piano bench, we’re peers,” she says. “We are making music together. If you keep it going, it’s so valuable. And it’s so amazing what can happen.”

Neither of them could have predicted he’d be pulled aside by the chair of the music department last year. Hansen describes the moment.

“He laid it out — ‘The Chancellor’s office wants an orchestral work commissioned.’ And I said, ‘Well, is there any more information?’ And he said, nope, unfortunately, that’s all we have. So it was sort of like . . . . running into the void with your eyes closed.” 

The piece he composed — Centennial Overture — was debuted by the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra in November. To say that Nash is proud is an understatement.

“If you remember, Scotty, when you did your audition here for Fairbanks —” she says.

“I try not to remember,” he says. She laughs.

“There was a time we never thought we’d get through it,” she says. “I’m recording him, and I’m like, I know you can do this, Scotty.”

Home for the holidays, Hansen needs to practice for a concerto competition in February. He’ll be playing a solo part with a symphony behind him — but in Haines, there’s no symphony at his disposal to practice. The best solution? Two pianos, and a reliable second player.

With a fire burning in the woodstove and an audience of cats, they each sit down at a rescued piano.

Composer Scott Hansen plays a grand piano rescued from a house fire in the 1990s. (Berett Wilber)

“Are you set?” she asks. “I couldn’t do this twice!” They both laugh.

Hansen plays the solo part. Nash plays all the rest.

They’ve already decided they’ll play together next Christmas — and hopefully give a concert. In the meantime, Hansen will head back to Fairbanks to finish his school year, and a new three-part string quartet, with movements Swim, Climb, and Ski — it’s about growing up in Haines, he says.

Editor’s Note: Hansen’s new composition was originally reported as a symphony: he’s actually working on a string quartet.