Buechner was awarded the first Beethoven Fellowship of the American Pianists Association in 1981. She was a prizewinner for piano at the 1983 Queen Elisabeth Music Competition. She was awarded the Gold Medal at the 1984 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, and won a Bronze Medal in the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition.
Early interest in music
I grew up in a suburban household where my mother was greatly concerned — as were many American parents of the time — that my brother and I should attain a good education and cultural exposure to which she and my father did not have ready access. In addition to a pronounced emphasis on good schoolwork and study, we were both given piano lessons from a local teacher who, fortunately, was a marvellous young musician herself. Her name was Veronika Wolf (now Veronika Cohen), and later she made her mark as a pioneering composer of electronic music and Dean of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. At age 18, she was pursuing a degree at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and earning side money teaching piano to children. Miss Wolf brought me to — or should I say, brought to me — the world of rhythmic clapping exercises, “A Dozen a Day,” and Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. She did not want to teach me at first, as I was just 3 years old (my brother was 5), but when she tested me at the piano, I could read the notes without any instruction at all, and could play all of my brother’s pieces from the Leila Fletcher Book I. Many years later, she told me that my touch was “soft and sure.” I’m still proud of that quote.
I had another teacher in the form of our living room radio, which my mother set to the classical station in our house, every day. And I can recall learning to tell the time of 4:30 p.m. each weekday afternoon, when the radio tag for that time was Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.”
My mother noticed that I would stand, glued to the spot in front of the radio at that time daily — the music just galvanized me so. Even today, when I hear the rustling string 16th notes of that Overture, my chest begins to palpitate with excitement. Call it the splendour of knowing that one is alive.
My main teacher as a youth (after Veronika) was the Filipino virtuoso Reynaldo Reyes, and from the age of 11 onwards he trained me to perform not only in student recitals but also by way of competitions — local, then national. After I left Baltimore for New York City and Juilliard (where I worked primarily with Rudolf Firkušný), I entered a fair number of international competitions. I was fortunate to gain some prizes, which spread my name and reputation, and eased my way to establishing a performance career.
I was the Gold Medalist of the 1984 Gina Bachauer International Competition, and got a Bronze Medal in the Tschaikowsky Competition in Moscow as the highest-ranking American pianist, in 1986.
There are too many music competitions overall, and these days it seems that everyone has a prize on their resumé from some place — so that the meaning of a competition prize is pretty much de-natured. Moreover, the way of attaining a prize is usually in a polar opposite way of establishing oneself as a unique artist.
So many pianists simply playing the same old same old repertoire (Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin Ballades, Prokofieff showpieces) in the same way, fearful of offending someone with an original approach. So many judges (many of them failed performers, I might add) expecting to hear that repertoire played in the same way, so they can easily opine on what they hear as validating their own thoughts about it. None of this is good for young musicians, and it is certainly not good for classical music in general.
One thing I used to do when I entered competitions, was to make myself learn new repertoire that was infrequently programmed. Consequently, I often found myself playing pieces in competitions that no one else was playing, and often the judges did not know — Bartók’s Etudes, Janacek’s Sonata, Busoni’s Toccata, Martinu’s Fantasy and Toccata, et al. If there was a recital component of free choice, I looked at that as a tremendous opportunity to expand my boundaries in terms of stage presentation.
Off the top of my head, I can surely name 10 fantastic composers (not including contemporary living ones) whose keyboard music is never played in competitions — Frescobaldi, Sweelinck, Byrd, Weber, Dussek, Dvorak, Szymanowski, Turina, Krenek, Yashiro — there are many, many more.
Giving sound to neglected masterpieces is one way of reaching your ultimate artistic goal — not be merely replicating that which has come before, but finding new ways of expression and creativity. If a competition can further this process, then it can be a good experience.
It is always good to learn how to perform on stage with pressure and control — this must be done all through a musician’s life, so to cope with it early is a good thing. Probably the best outcome of entering a competition, regardless of prizes won or lost, is to develop a feeling for the stage. Such experience is crucial.
But when a competition is entered just to make some money or get your name around, then the focus on the big picture — the calling of musical artistry — is lost.
I have played and recorded a fair amount of new music, because I do think it is important to know the new generation of rising voices, and to help promote those whose vision seems enlightened. Two years ago I commissioned the Japanese composer Yukiko Nishimura to write me a set of Études, and I am now playing that set (of ten) on many of my concerts. I’m also very keen on the young composer-pianists Jared Miller and Michael Brown, both of whose scores I have played in public.
Of the older American composers, to my mind John Corigliano towers over all — his Piano Concerto of 1967 is the greatest American work in that mold after Barber’s. And I think the piano music of Leon Kirchner is stunning, as well, and should be better known.
In my college days I was very aware of contemporary music, mostly in a negative way as the dominant attitude in 1970s-80s New York was simply, well, either you liked and handled hideously complex atonal scores, or you weren’t smart enough to play new music. It was a relief to me when Minimalism came of age and re-booted young composers to the idea that there’s one than one way to express things sonically.
Young composers today write in a wide variety of styles. So there’s really no excuse for pianists today to shrug off the obligation of promoting music of our time, with the phrase “I don’t like contemporary music because it’s atonal / too complex / ugly.” Anyone who says such a thing, hasn’t kept up with music responsibly.
I am nevertheless wary of new music “specialists,” who sometimes become so because their technical insufficiencies are easily exposed when they play Bach or Beethoven. Some of the least competent concerts I have heard, were of contemporary scores whose composers should have been incensed about what the inadequate performer did to their work.
And I don’t enjoy the feeling when I attend a new music concert, often surrounded by composers and new music fans, that I should display enthusiasm for everything performed. Like baseball games, a lot of new music concerts are dull, with music of little inspiration or feeling for audience connection. If you experience the hearing of a masterpiece in its first performance — as I did with the première Gyorgy Ligeti’s Piano Concerto in New York City — you will know it, I guarantee you.
In listening to new music, or in choosing new music to play or new composers to champion, I keep this dictum in mind: that the technique of expression is not important compared to the value of the message or emotions being expressed. If music does not speak and touch the heart as well as the mind, then it is not good music.
The connection of music across cultures and centuries is of utmost importance. Sometimes I fashion my own recitals with a curator’s mind, which is why I might pair works of Bach with those of Schoenberg due to the shared emphasis on polyphony; or late Beethoven with Fauré and Thomas Adès because of their spiritual natures; or play Rhapsodies by Tomasek, Liszt, Brahms, and Gershwin. It’s like going to the art museum — how wonderful to see the Virgin Mary as portrayed by El Greco, by Picasso, by Chris Ofili (of elephant dung fame!) — see the connections and contrasts. Hear the universal search of humankind.
So to say, I’m not interested in New Music. I’m interested in All Music.
I do feel uniquely blessed to have had a wide array of astounding teachers, and I could write for a very long time about them all. My technical approach is very much derived from the Busoni School through his pupils and grand-pupils that I worked with: Mieczyslaw Münz, Reynaldo Reyes, Ann Schein, Edward Weiss, Gunnar Johansen. In my adult years, my most influential teachers were Byron Janis and Rudolf Firkušný. The latter in particular, with whom I studied for four years at Juilliard — playing for this magnificent artist was simply the most inspiring and unforgettable experience of my entire musical life.
Firkušný taught in the way that I consider the most efficient and informative, by means of demonstration. When he sat at the second piano to show me something (he always played perfectly, at any given hour, and with the modest disclaimer “well, I do it like this”), my eyes and ears perked to maximum awareness, so that I might be able to effectively copy his beautiful sound and inimitable timing. Münz and Reyes taught in similar fashion. Byron Janis could not, because of his rheumatoid arthritis, but his gruntful singing accomplished almost as much! You must depend upon a teacher as a role model, and later fashion your own approach upon that sturdy foundation. I think it is crucial to study the piano with someone who knows well the experience of playing successfully in concert.
Research into the lives and musical careers of my own teachers led me to a lot of revelations about pedagogy and different schools of pianism. It amazed me, for example, to see film of the French virtuoso Jacques Février playing (the Poulenc Double Piano Concerto with the composer) — for his hands and fingers, and the way in which he used them on the keys, looked like mirror images of his pupil Reynaldo Reyes’ hands, and of course Reynaldo taught me to shape my hands the same way. The sense of apprenticeship in music teaching is fundamental. Whenever someone plays the piano, there are echoes of teachers and grand-teachers in the fingers, the body, the phrasing and sound.
I must admit that I rarely listen to piano concerts these days, as my own hours are so full of my own practicing, that my ears are already overworked! When I have some free time, I’d much rather take a long hike, visit the bookstore or art museum, see a movie, or go to a baseball game (I am a longtime fan of teams on both sides of the Pacific). I’m more likely to attend symphonic or choral concerts than piano recitals.
And it has been a long time since I went to concerts to study, copy or learn, as I did often in my Juilliard days. I feel like I have my own style of playing now, and when I listen to other pianists, regardless of how good they are, my critical teaching ears start to grind and churn. I truly hate that! — It’s a bar to true enjoyment. When I hear jazz pianists, I am much happier for I can relax and really listen the music, as an audience member should.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not aware or appreciative of other pianists’ work, of course. There are so many fine pianists performing publicly now, and of course the Internet is awash in them. For myself, I love the recordings of Dinu Lipatti and Clara Haskil in particular, in addition to those by my teachers Janis and Firkušný. The sounds they make are familiar and serendipitous to my ears.
And I still play for other pianists, too — for the legendary American pianist Reah Sadowsky who was a dear friend until her death two years ago, and most recently for the great Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, both in the USA and in Vienna. He’s an astounding inspiration to me, and I feel so grateful to learn from such an artist. I heard him play two recitals in Japan last year that I’ll never forget, so spiritually powerful they were.
Advice to Young Pianists
Perhaps your toughest question. For we live in times of diminished appreciation of all culture, and blind veneration of technology — quite to the detriment of our minds, our hearts, our hands (I wonder if the next generation of humans will be able to do anything with their hands at all, besides swiping a screen and poking with their thumbs).
Young musicians today, in addition to working for 20+ years to master their craft, coping with social media, and finding money for rent and food, must fight the possibly unwinnable battle of survival for good music itself. They must be prepared to make enormous sacrifices, so that succeeding generations will have the desire to sit in contemplation for decent lengths of time, to concentrate, to appreciate messages of inward spiritual grace, to value the time and energy and commitment it takes to make personal discoveries in art.
The audience for great music is simply disappearing, and it must not. For the very worth of our society, in cultural terms, is at stake.
I’m not at all confident about this, by the way. But I know the rewards of struggling for quality, as opposed to shrugging shoulders and giving in to the ever-changing banal tastes of ones’ time. Bach, Mozart and Schubert knew that same struggle, very well.
Difficult experiences and challenges
Every human being experiences the rough ride of existence, if they live long enough — personal relationships gone bad, deaths of friends and family, work difficulties, health issues. I have dealt with all of this, in addition to coming to grips with being transgender. I was 38 years old when I transitioned from male to female, stopped playing concerts as David Buechner and began to play the piano as myself, Sara Davis Buechner.
It would be impossible to understate how enormous that challenge was, and I would need a book to describe the inner journey of it all. For this interview, I’ll just say that the effect upon my performance career was horrendous — concerts dried up, invitations disappeared, lucrative teaching offers pulled off the table. At the lowest point of my life, I was dead broke at age 42, teaching little children in an upstate New York music school where my faculty colleagues had been my own students just a couple of years before.
And you know, I learned to love teaching, and teaching small children, at that time. Partially because I needed to do so, in order to survive and thrive. But also because all my previous expectations as a privileged white male musician with big time manager and orchestral concerts and a big conservatory job was just wrecked beyond fixing — well, it enabled me to start building a true house upon a real foundation. And into that new house came these wonderful, beautiful, sublimely untalented little kids whose piano lessons became for me the opportunity to teach them not to play an instrument they had mixed emotions about, but rather simply to love music. I played games with them at the piano, chased them around the room when they got a little bored, shared candy with them, got them to laugh and smile and clap and sing. And within the context of that job which many musicians would consider lowly, I learned all about what is most important in music — just as I learned from being transgender and outcast, what is most important in life — to live, to enjoy, to be true to yourself and to others, regardless of others’ judgments upon you.
Hopes for the future…
That’s a long laundry list. Record more Bach-Busoni; record the complete Mozart Sonatas; record Japanese piano music of Nishimura, Nakada and Taku; record the three Brahms Violin Sonatas with Stephanie Chase (these are all in the planning stages now). Keep studying Japanese (I’m at intermediate level, struggling with the kanji at about 500 so far). Learn Spanish for my concerts in Latin and South America (I’ve started). Watch all the DVDs I’ve accumulated and never have time for. Take Latin ballroom dancing. Pick up my pencils and brushes again and draw and paint, not just doodle cartoons. Spend more time in Prague and Kyoto and Honolulu and El Barrio del Bronx and San Juan. Visit Indonesia and Vietnam and Cuba. Smoke fewer cigars, but better quality ones like the Trinidad (Fidel Castro’s fave). Learn how to make a reliable Gin Martini and Blue Hawaii. See the Osaka Hanshin Tigers win the Japan Series. I guess if I get to witness that, I can climb into my grave happily. That should be many, many years from now, if they keep playing like they are this season.
YouTube Channel: www.YouTube.com/SaraDavisBuechner