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Portrait of an Artist: Sara Davis Buechner

Sara Davis Buechner, in a photo provided by the artist.
Sara Davis Buechner, in a photo provided by the artist. By Courtesy of Sara Davis Buechner
By Charlotte A. Powell, Contributing Writer

Concert pianist Sara Davis Buechner has been lauded by the New York Times for her “intelligence, integrity and all-encompassing technical prowess.” She currently serves on the piano faculty of Temple University and recently performed for the Longwood Symphony Orchestra at the New England Conservatory.

The Harvard Crimson: How did you get into music?

Sara Davis Buechner: I grew up in a house in Baltimore, where my parents were very poor. But my mother was very committed to my brother and I getting a good education and a very profound exposure to culture which she had been denied herself. We had a lot of good books in the house and piano lessons, and she used to take out these framed reproductions of masterpieces from the neighborhood library. She hung these all around the house. So I was surrounded by copies of Gauguin and Renoir.

When I was a teenager, we would visit Washington and we'd always go to the art museums, especially the National Gallery. And I figured early on that the colors in those paintings were a visual representation of the colors I was trying to make in music.

THC: Do you think that the art that we call “great” needs to be “good?”

SDB: I was quite inspired in reading the obituaries one day, which I do religiously. I'm guessing this is a good 15 to 20 years ago now, there was a conductor named Franz Allers. I was surprised he had a pretty sizable obit at the time, but I'd never heard of him. They went on to describe that he was a German or Austrian musician who, like many others, had emigrated to the United States during World War II to escape with his life for being Jewish. And when he got to New York, he just couldn't get much employment and he ended up conducting a lot of Broadway pit orchestras. He conducted most of the great Lerner-Loewe musicals that we know, like “My Fair Lady.” And he was asked that question, and he said, “there is no first and second rate music, there are only first and second rate performances.”

THC: Why do you read the obituaries every day?

SDB: I guess I could say, sadly, that I probably formed that habit in the early 1980s when I lived in New York City. It was right after I had gotten out of Juilliard and played the New York debut, and I'm starting my performance career. At that time, I was associated with the Baldwin piano. Now the Baldwin Piano Company has since gone out of business, sad to say. After Baldwin went under, I started to play the Yamaha piano, and I'm still a Yamaha artist. Many pianists don't have a piano affiliation, they just play anything they like. If you have an affiliation with a piano company, then you try to play that piano whenever you can.

There was a wonderful man who ran the artists’ relations department of Baldwin named Jack Romano. Jack was beloved by everybody in the business — he was a delightful, charming man. He was in his mid 50s, at that time, I think, with a model's red hair and an appetite for drink and other otherworldly exaltations. He would have bridge parties, and he had the great jazz pianist George Shearing come over. George Shearing was blind — he wore dark glasses. He'd always say to George, "God dammit, stop peeking at my cards!" I just adored Jack. Everybody did. And one day my manager called me and said, “I want you to take some time to go see Jack. He's in the hospital.”

And I said, "What's wrong?" He says, "Well, nobody really knows. But you know, he'll be okay. He’ll be out soon." I went to see him and indeed, Jack didn't know what was wrong with him. Doctors wouldn't tell him much, and Jack stayed in that hospital and he got sicker and sicker and sicker. And I've never forgotten — I think it was the last time I saw him. I went to the hospital. His eyes were closed. He was hardly communicative. I asked him, was there anything I could do from him? He said, "Can you please give me a shave? The nurses won't shave me." Oh, okay. Sure. So, I took a straight razor and I gave him a shave and of course, I nicked him one or two places and wiped the blood off and when I got home, I had a panic attack because people were talking about this funny disease that was transmitted in blood.

I called the gay men's health crisis center to talk to someone who soothed me and said, “Look, wash your hands. Get yourself tested in a few weeks; don't panic, it'll probably be okay.” And, of course, Jack was one of the first people I knew who died of AIDS.

Around that time, in early 1980s, I think I developed that habit of looking at obituaries because first it was once a month, you'd hear that this pianist died or that composer died or this dancer died. And then it was once a week, then almost daily. You’d pick up the New York Times and there would be some young creative person dead and then it was a 21-year-old classmate of mine from Juilliard. It was horrifying. And the Reagan administration, like the Trump administration, was so ignorant of medicine; They wouldn't do anything. Nobody seemed to care.

THC: I’m kind of curious — if you had to write your own obituary, what would the first sentence be?

SDB: Oh my god. I would write, “Sara Davis, the greatest pianist of all time.”

I'm not gonna answer that question. Somebody else has got to do it, right?

What I don't want it to say is “transgender pianist,” and I'm almost certain that the New York Times, if and when I pass away, will say, “Sara Davis Buechner, transgender pianist, died at age,” you know, whatever. It's not because I'm at all unhappy with that title. It's just that I hope by the time I die, that being trans is something that is fully just known and accepted and not spectacular. I think the word may have to be part of my obit because I guess I was a pioneer in terms of just being out about that. Being very open about my transition. So that's okay. I mean, I'm proud of that, to have inspired a lot of young people to come backstage and say, "you gave me a little courage" or "I was inspired by your story."

But my whole life, ever since I was a little kid, has always been about playing Mozart. I'd be less than honest if I didn't say there's a little bit of anger deep inside me. I still cope with it every day — having to prove myself not just once or twice or three times in my life, but many, many times over because, you know, people either couldn't cope with that or are baffled by it. When I went off to Boston, I hadn't been to Boston in many, many years. I saw some people who I'd known who I hadn't seen in 20 years. They hadn’t seen me as a female before. They got right back into the swing of calling me the wrong name, the wrong pronouns and everything until I caught them.

It's very confusing, probably. But I feel like you've had 20 years to practice this. What's so damn tough about it? So you realize you're still fighting something and standing up for something that maybe most people don't encounter in their life. I'm sure they don't mean anything malevolent for the most part.

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