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Guest pianist with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra is making history

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 2/3/2022 Page Leggett, The Charlotte Observer

Pianist Sara Davis Buechner is used to being the first.

She’s played all over the world and in all 50 states.

Typically, for the host orchestra, she’s the first transgender guest artist they’ve accompanied. She’ll be first again when she takes the stage Feb. 11 and 12 with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

Buechner (Byook-ner), who lives in Philadelphia and is from Baltimore, has been on CSO’s radar for a while.

“We didn’t intentionally seek her out because she’s a transgender artist,” said Carrie Graham, the symphony’s director of artistic planning. “But we are … welcoming to individuals who identify as transgender, and we’re thrilled to present her. There’s so much more to her than just that facet of her identity.”

Still, being “first” at something often holds great meaning for often-marginalized communities.

Just as Amy Schneider, the first openly trans person to compete on “Jeopardy!” inspired legions of fans with her recent 40-game winning streak, Buechner inspires fans everywhere she goes, too. She’s a role model for some before she even plays a single note.

“After the show, very often, some LGBTQ folks or even trans people come backstage to meet me,” she said.

“And sometimes I see people who are really struggling, particularly in smaller towns and in the Midwest and Southeast,” Buechner said. “Sometimes, those people see me as a beacon. I’m quite aware of that. In the moment, I’m aware that that the music is doing one thing, but my physical being has a statement to make.”

Her status as a transgender woman is a non-issue with the musicians with whom she performs. But that wasn’t always the case. The classical music world wasn’t always completely accepting.

“I was shocked at the time of transition that it really almost cost me my career and my livelihood,” she said. “And I think through sheer perseverance — I’m a very stubborn animal — I built it back up.

“... I’ve had a very long master class in human behavior and how difficult it is to change minds and hearts. But it can be done if you have the patience to do it.”

North Carolina has been the epicenter of the struggle to change hearts and minds. In 2016 — in reaction to a new anti-discrimination ordinance adopted in Charlotte — state lawmakers passed HB2, or House Bill 2, an infamous “bathroom bill” that prohibited transgender people from using bathrooms correlating to their gender identity.

The law was later partially repealed.

Buechner, though, remembers playing in Raleigh several years ago just after HB2’s passage: “I was aware that when I went backstage and used the bathroom that I could be breaking the law,” she said.

With the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, Buechner has been invited to be part of pre-show talks, led by Philadelphia-based guest conductor Kensho Watanabe, from 6:30 to 7 p.m. before Friday and Saturday performances.

“Very often when I go places to play now, I’m invited to talk to LGBTQ groups — especially to youth groups,” she said. “And I’m happy about that in the sense that I’ve become a role model. I didn’t have any role models when I was younger.”

She says peer musicians and artists have responded differently than some audience members.

“If I happen to look at my own YouTube postings of concerts, I might see hateful comments,” Buechner said.

“The people who run orchestras and recital series are, properly, concerned about selling tickets. And, they have to think in terms of: Will this keep us from selling tickets? And I’d like to think that’s kind of a moot point by now. I don’t think for the most part, and I really mean for the very most part — 99.9% of the audience out there — they care at all. They’re there to hear a good performance.”

‘Titanic virtuoso’

By happenstance, Buechner will perform a piano concerto by a female composer, Clara Schumann — the Schumann you may never have heard of. Her husband, Robert, is more famous.

“The piece itself is the brainchild of a 14-year-old Clara Schumann, who was in love with the much older Robert … and this story is a romance for the ages,” Buechner said.

“But it’s also a story that probably, in our time, would be a ‘Me, too’ story because Robert was 20 or 21 when he came into the Wieck household — that was Clara’s father, a famous pianist and teacher. Robert came to study with Friedrich Wieck when Clara was literally 9 years old and fell in love with her.”

Orchestra President and CEO David Fisk said, “This is one of those pieces that has been neglected in the repertoire, and it’s well worth hearing. It’s wonderful writing and an astonishing accomplishment. Clara was probably as gifted a child prodigy as Mozart was.”

She was, unfortunately, suppressed by the by the times. Composing was just not encouraged (for women).”

Buechner — a professor at Temple University — added, “Clara Schumann must’ve developed into one of the titanic virtuosos of her time because her piano concerto is an enormously difficult piece.”

“It comes down to us now in the 21 st century as an incredibly striking piece that deserves to be played and known better,” Buechner said.

“It tells us a lot about music, about gender, about expectations, about limitations, about possibilities. And, and also, I’m always proud to play that piece because Clara herself — after her husband lost his mind, basically — continued being one of the great pianists and great piano teachers of the entire 19th century.”

But no one goes to the symphony because of the private lives of composers. They’re there for the music, as Buechner said.

“This is a remarkable piece in three movements,” Buechner said. “It takes only about 18 minutes to play. In the second (movement), the orchestra drops out and it becomes a beautiful duo just for the solo cellist and the piano, which is quite unusual. It has these very unusual touches and it’s a bold, daring work by a female composer from the 1830s that you can’t even imagine somebody so young could produce.”

What happened to Clara? After she married Robert, “she commenced to have [eight] children — several of whom died during childbirth – and devote herself … to playing Robert’s music and taking care of Robert, who was probably bipolar,” Buechner said.

“He was taken to an asylum in 1854, so I think poor Clara had a very hard life and to great extent, she sacrificed her own compositional talents and career to be Robert’s wife.”

A night of firsts

Another first for the evening: the orchestra will perform Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms.”

“It’s nice to have this sort of feminine theme throughout the program,” Fisk said. “This particular piece, written in 2009, is only 10 minutes, but it’s something that was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Anna Clyne is still alive. It’s always great to be able to present living composers. It’s in memory of her mother.”

“There is a thread through the program,” Fisk added. “A concept of remembrance, of looking back, of wistfulness, if you like. Both the Tchaikovsky and the Anna Clyne pieces never descend to the sentimental, but they’re both very meditative, and you get a feeling of loss in both.”

Fisk said recent audiences have been enthusiastic to hear live music again: “We’ve had some terrific audiences in the sense of both the number of folks who are coming to our performances, but also in the readiness, the eagerness to hear live music again.

“What was really striking to me in listening to the symphony (recently) play Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,” he added, “was, at the end, you could hear a pin drop. And the silence lasted for what seemed an age before the applause broke out. The audience was so wrapped up in the music. You get the feeling that they’re ready to be swept away from the stresses of the moment by music.”

Want to go?

Sara Davis Buechner is the guest pianist for CSO’s “Tchaikovsky Pathetique” on Feb. 11 and 12 at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Belk Theater. She and the CSO will also perform Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms.” Tickets range from $10 to $100 and are available at carolinatix.org. Masks and proof of vaccination are required for entry.

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