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Souvenir de Porto Rico

Posted on: March 27th, 2015 by SDB No Comments


San Juan, Puerto Rico, 27 March 2015

En la plaza del Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico

I’ve spent the last week of my life immersed in the splendor of Puerto Rican sunshine and hospitality, preparing for concerts this weekend with the magnificent Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico at the Sala Sinfónica Pablo Casals, under the baton of one of my favorite conductors, Maximiano Valdés (we are playing the Mozart Piano Concerto in C minor KV 491). Though I’ve been housed in a typical luxury hotel full of American tourists, I’ve had little time for the beach or mojitos. There have been practice hours, of course, rehearsals, and my favorite activity of all, digging into the musical culture of this beautiful tropical paradise.

Souvenir de Porto Rico is the title of one of the greatest piano showpieces of American composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869), an evocative mini-drama subtitled “March of the Gibaros,” referring to Spanish-Indian natives of Puerto Rico’s forested interior. Gottschalk was remarkably prescient in his ability to incorporate proto-rag and Afro-Caribbean rhythms into his piano music. And his pianistic adaptations found adherents in Latin America, perhaps most notably in two masters of the Caribbean Danza – Ignacio Cervantes (Cuban, 1847 – 1905) and Juan Morel Campos (Puerto Rican, 1857 – 1896).

The Danzas of Juan Morel Campos are among the most notoriously obscure piano scores of all, and thus it was with relish that I made my interest in this music clear upon my arrival in San Juan. In just a matter of days, the kind librarian of the Orquesta Sinfónica had obtained for me copies of five rare volumes of Campos’ music, originally published by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in 1958. My kind of souvenir!

My hotel desktop — Danzas, San Juan map, and hand-rolled robusto cigars

Playing through the 100 Danzas in these volumes over the past few days has been a fascinating experience. Firstly, how can one not be enchanted by the effusive titles of these rhythmic masterpieces — La niña bonita, ¡No me toques! and ¡Si te toco! (a pair), Sueño de amor, Sin tí Jamás, El gato flaco, and the like. Though Campos’ style is less windingly contrapuntal than Cervantes’, he freely indulges in complex cross-rhythms of 3 vs. 4 vs. 6 which must be felt in the belly, not parsed in the brain. So to say, one cannot play Puerto Rican Danzas without dancing. ¡Así bailar!

The icing on my pastel Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican cake) was a visit yesterday to the spectacular Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico. In addition to two large buildings replete with offices, practice rooms, a beautiful library and a magnificent concert hall named for legendary Puerto Rican pianist Jesús Maria Sanromá (1902 – 1984), the Conservatorio boasts an outdoor plaza with splendid views of the city of San Juan and its lovely harbor. There the students congregated with guitars and violins, chatting and sipping espresso con leche (I prefer mine sin azúcar) in the enveloping tropical air, under towering palm trees. Truly I felt there can be no more inviting atmosphere in which to study the musical art.

Entrance to the Conservatorio; Explaining a point en Español (y Inglés)

At the Conservatorio I gave a master class to the piano students of Prof. María del Carmen Gil, in the small recital hall. Prof. Gil is the remarkable force behind the building of the new wing of the Conservatorio, during her tenure as head of the school. I was impressed by her students’ beautiful playing of works by Haydn, Chopin, Debussy, and Prokofieff, as well as their welcoming nature and eagerness to learn. In return I treated them to a foxtrot of George Gershwin, but I wish I could have knocked off a few Danzas of Morel Campos instead. That will have to wait for next time, and I will surely return — for the tropical music of Puerto Rico is simply irresistible, indeed sabroso in all ways.

Credo for Thanksgiving

Posted on: November 26th, 2014 by SDB 1 Comment

Thanksgiving Day 2014.

Playing at the Juilliard School Commemorative Recital
for my teacher Rudolf Firkušný, November 2012.

Some years ago in New York City, I taught piano in Room 605 of the building that originally housed the Juilliard School of Music, before its move to Lincoln Center.  The room had once been the studio of Olga Samaroff Stokowski (1880 – 1948), who gave lessons there to William Kapell, Rosalyn Tureck, Alexis Weissenberg, and many other musicians of note. There was no indication of the room’s illustrious history anywhere within that building, however. Only when my former Piano Literature professor, the erudite and witty Joseph Bloch, came for a visit one September afternoon, did he inform me which footsteps had preceded my own. He too, had taken his lessons in that room, with its sweeping views of Grant’s Tomb and the northern Hudson River. Madame Samaroff wrote down a musical Credo, in an undated letter to one of her pupils. It seems appropriate on this Thanksgiving Day 2014, to copy it here. For it reminds me of all the things I have to be grateful for, in my own life as a musician.

I believe in music as:

one of the loftiest forms of expression known to man.

a necessity in the spiritual life of man.

an endless source of pleasure that does not wane with the passing of time.

one of the things that can most powerfully stir and express the emotions of man.

a great enrichment of the imagination.

a social force possessing in the highest degree the power to induce states of mind that profoundly affect the character, the thoughts, and the actions of man.

So very much to be grateful for, on this day. Thank you, Madame Samaroff.


Canadian Royalty

Posted on: November 7th, 2014 by SDB 4 Comments


Left: Ellen Ballon, concert flyer (ca. 1933)
Right: Portrait of Ellen Ballon as a Young Woman, by Edward Barnard Lintott (oil on canvas, ca. 1935)
by permission of Dalhousie University, Halifax

- – - – -

7 November 2014

Recent concert travels brought me to the Atlantic seacoast city of Halifax, in the northeastern province of Nova Scotia. At the Dalhousie University Arts Centre, where Symphony Nova Scotia presents its concerts (I was soloist in the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto with the superb conductor Bernhard Gueller), the main lobby is graced by a magnificent display — an imposing bronze sculpture by Jacob Epstein, and beautiful oil portrait by Edward Barnard Lintott (pictured above). The subject? Montréal-born pianist Ellen Ballon, a musician of the first rank whose name should drop from the tongues of all proud Canadian pianophiles as easily as those of Glenn Gould, Anton Kuerti, André Laplante, or Marc-André Hamelin.

Canada was home to a trio of outstanding women pianists in the mid-twentieth century: Mme. Ballon (1898 – 1969), Reah Sadowsky of Winnipeg (1915 – 2012), and the Ukrainian-born, Toronto-based Lubka Kolessa (1902 – 1997). All deserve far greater attention for their lives’ work and recordings; all are unheard on the airways of the CBC Radio; and all are nearly forgotten today. As an American emigré to the north, it often seems to me that Canadians believe the piano did not even exist before its invention by Glenn Goldberg Gould. Among the music students of Dalhousie University that I met during my visit, not one had bothered to learn the name of the woman whose portrait and bust they passed daily on their way to classes and concerts, nor did they have any inkling of what she had accomplished.

Which was a staggering amount. One of the youngest musical prodigies of all time (in 1906 Artur Rubinstein described her as “the greatest pianistic genius I have ever met”), Ellen Ballon was accepted as a pupil of Rafael Joseffy at age eight, and made her début with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Walter Damrosch, playing Concertos of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, at the age of twelve (giving Josef Hofmann, who later taught her in Switzerland, a run for his money). She was invited to the White House three times, once as a child to play for President William Howard Taft, and in her adult years to perform for Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In her twenties she worked with Wilhelm Backhaus in Vienna and Alberto Jonás in New York. At the height of her touring career, she resided variously in England, Canada and the United States, where she regularly appeared as a headliner in major venues like Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House.

There was also something of Latina complexion to her personality, and perhaps Ellen Ballon’s very finest and most rhythmically fiery playing can be heard in her landmark recordings of the piano music of Brazilian composer Heiter Villa-Lobos (1887 – 1959), from whom she commissioned and premiéred his First Piano Concerto in 1946. In an interview for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in August 1953, Ballon described Villa-Lobos’ music as “of the earth… it is so basic, primitive, if you like and so real.”

An interest in South American repertoire was something that Ballon shared with Reah Sadowsky, who recorded new music of Brazilian and Chilean composers and composed an orchestral dance entitled Cadíz. One can surmise that their mutual teacher Alberto Jonás, a Spaniard, helped to spark such curiosity in his two young Canadian pupils. Jonás dedicated his own difficult Novelette/Étude in Seconds to Ballon.

In the Ellen Ballon Archives housed at Dalhousie’s impressive Killam Library, one finds a treasure trove of manuscripts and autographs which attest to the wide literary and artistic circles in which Ballon travelled. She corresponded with Sir Wilfred Laurier, writer Edna Ferber, artist Kathleen Shackleton, sculptor Jacob Epstein, singer Lotte Lehman, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, composer Aaron Copland, and countless others. She enjoyed a long and celebrated friendship with author W. Somerset Maugham, and my jaw literally dropped to see the shelf of warmly autographed first editions of his novels on the archival shelf.

The daughter of a wealthy family, Ellen Ballon herself generously supported the works of young and talented artists, and left a large endowment to McGill University, where she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Music degree in 1954. This was a woman who felt clearly, that as her own artistic gifts had been carefully nurtured, so too she could nurture those who would succeed her.

Some years ago I proposed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that a collection of broadcast shows could be made, to revitalize the interest in pioneering and extraordinary Canadian pianists like Ballon, Sadowsky, and Kolessa (I imagined a series entitled “Gold before Gould”). There was not much interest, although after two years of nudging I did get the CBC to record one of Reah Sadowsky’s last house concerts, when she was 93 years old. After my visit to Dalhousie, I will once again try some nudging, to get the recorded legacy of Ballon and others onto the Canadian airways. But I do find it ironic, that an American might be more interested in the roots of Canadian pianism than those whose birthright should provide far more enthusiastic pride about it.

“It’s your country. If you don’t give a damn about your own heritage, why the hell should I?” was one provocative line I used in a conversation with a disinterested producer. His attitude was: it’s old news, no one remembers or cares, it’s not interesting any more. But I say that history forgotten is history lost, and it is unnecessarily tragic to lose the rich musical legacy of great artists such as Ellen Ballon. She lived a magnificent and generously artistic life, and we may yet enjoy the manifold musical gifts she bequeathed us. It is our job, as musicians or music lovers from any country, to listen to her work, and to know the beauty that flowed from her hands. Surely that would be Ellen Ballon’s own lasting wish.

Bust of Ellen Ballon, pianist, by Jacob Epstein (bronze, London 1938)
by permission of Dalhousie University, Halifax

El Maéstro German Diéz (1924 – 2014)

Posted on: July 9th, 2014 by SDB No Comments


With German Diéz at the Greenwich House Music School, May 2012.

News reached me this morning of the passing of the Cuban pianistic and pedagogic legend German Diéz (18 June 1924 – 9 July 2014). He had been chair of the piano department of the Greenwich House Music School in New York City for a remarkable 64 years, and had also taught at Bard College, SUNY-Purchase, and Brooklyn College, over the course of a long and influential musical life. He was a devoted and elegant friend, and I will join literally thousands of New York pianists who mourn his passing, and celebrate his artistic legacy.

His pianistic credentials were the stuff of legend. He was a pupil of Edward Steuermann, Carl Friedberg, and then Claudio Arrau, who asked him to become his trusted assistant. German (pronounced Hehr-mahn) played concerts all over Cuba, the West Indies, and the USA where he became renowned for his interpretive skill in contemporary music. But German’s greatest devotion was reserved for his own teaching of young people.

I often say that teaching in the Conservatory or University is an easy job. Older, advanced pianists come to play for you, and lessons begin on the higher plane of interpretive detail. But German Diéz taught young people — children, beginners, teenagers, young adults, of all levels of technical ability. He raised generations of them, transforming them from musical fledglings into professionals. Among his pupils were numerous international prizewinners, and they are spread all over the globe now. Such is the hardest teaching of all — training the basic mechanism of fingers, hands and arms; the laborious business of writing in fingerings and assigning metronome practice tempi; showing the workings of the pedals; designating progressively graded assignments. And German Diéz loved doing all that, as no one else I have ever known. He was a masterful teacher, and his proud pupils called him El Maéstro.

Masterful he was also, as a gentleman, a friend and a colleague. Whenever I saw German in New York, his conversation would burn as brightly as the Havana sunrise. Always some personal stories of Arrau, or Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, or the character of the Danzas Cubanas of Ignacio Cervántes; possibly a tale of some new teaching challenge; or the ongoing concerns of the Greenwich House Music School which was his first love as well as his family. He was elegant in his persona, suave in his speech, tropically dressed, a Grand Señor. I will miss no one greater than El Maéstro German Diéz.

Badura-Skoda’s final recital in Japan

Posted on: June 17th, 2014 by SDB 4 Comments


Only yesterday, and now. Paul Badura-Skoda in the Land of the Rising Sun.


Tokyo (Ibaraki Prefecture), Japan, 15 June 2014

Last evening, blessed by the Gods of fortunate timing, I found myself in attendance at a singular, memorable, musical event: the last piano recital in Japan given by Paul Badura-Skoda. The venerable Austrian master is still keyboard-spry at 86 years of age, but both he and his wife Elizabeth spoke to me of the increasing hardships of travel, road diet and jet lag. They were anticipating their flight home later today with satisfaction. No wonder, for their “Final Concert Tour” has brought them to seven concert halls across the country in the past two weeks.

Just two evenings ago I heard Mr. Badura-Skoda’s penultimate recital on this tour, in Nagoya. At Munetsugu Hall, a lucky audience of some 400 people heard the Austrian master in top form, playing a long and demanding program of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (Variations and Sonatas of stil patetico nature) with probity, drive and confrontational abandon. It was thrilling, in fact unforgettable. Backstage afterwards, the pianist casually suggested to me, why don’t I come up to Ibaraki (north of Tokyo) to hear his other program? — an invitation that I took up in a heartbeat.

It proved a harder challenge to meet than expected. The Bando Civic Concert Hall in Ibaraki Prefecture is difficult to reach, without a car. My spouse Kayoko and I ended up taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo, and then a long bus connection to the rural suburb of Mitsukaido, where we stayed overnight. From Mitsukaido we had to take a half-hour taxi ride to Bando. The Badura-Skodas were driven some two hours back and forth there, from their Tokyo hotel, on concert day — no wonder Elizabeth remarked to me, “cette voyage, ah, nous sommes fatigués…”

Yet it hardly sounded so, last evening. An overflow crowd of some 600 people (of all ages! — I am astounded at how young Japanese children sit so quietly through such concerts) heard Badura-Skoda in a valedictory evening of Chopin — four Waltzes, four Mazurkas and the Barcarolle — and Schubert — the last Sonata in B flat major — plus a helping of five delectable encores.

Last year in Shanghai I heard Badura-Skoda give a gripping account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor KV 491 with his own cadenzas. Subsequently I caught up with him in Madison, Wisconsin, where I enjoyed a delightful afternoon of musical consultation on one of his favorite subjects, the Piano Sonatas of Mozart. And this past week in Japan, I found myself in the unusual position of being a groupie — in Japanese, one could say “otaku” — as my admiration of the pianist as both performer and scholar has only grown over the decades. His Mozart recordings profoundly influenced me as a young student, and his writings on performance practice enabled me to craft my own cadenzas to the Concertos of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Now, some three decades after first encountering his name, to get better-acquainted with him has been a rich and delightful blessing.

It would have been hard to top the Nagoya recital, where I felt I had never heard Haydn in particular played with more insight, sympathy, and emotive power. And indeed, Badura-Skoda was burdened with the weight of unimaginable expectation last evening. But one thing manifested itself from the opening note of the Chopin Waltz in A minor op. 34 no. 2 — the rich cantabile tone of a master’s touch, a sound one simply does not hear very often from pianists these days. That tone informed all the pieces on the program, of course, and the grateful Japanese audience (startling to say, I was the only gaijin in attendance) simply could not have enough of it.

In an interview given on his 75th birthday (in 2002) for the Österreich-Journal, Badura-Skoda referred to a central truth which is critical to the sound of his own pianism:

“The notes are important, firstly because of the silence that lies between them, and secondly the sound within them — what may be expressed, and must be. For the notes are like the words of a language; and if I speak a foreign language correctly but do not know the meaning of the words, then neither can my audience understand the meaning of the unfolding drama.”   [translation from the German].

The evening’s acme was, of course, a breathtaking traversal of the langorous Schubert Sonata, which Badura-Skoda took directly and at times in a tempo quicker than is often experienced. In addition to his tonal command, the Austrian pianist brought one of his greatest strengths to this performance, which is an architectural clarity coupled to forward momentum that has cumulative, shattering impact. In the midst of the last movement, I found myself in tears, amidst one of the songful episodes, savoring a tender phrase that would soon give way to the inevitable driving climax. All around me were other faces flecked with teardrops as well, and for the first time in my life, I found myself wishing that Schubert’s 40-minute masterpiece had another movement or two to go.

When the Schubert did come to its close, there was a rainshower of applause, bravos from all corners of the house, a flower bouquet brought on stage by an adorable child who was squeezed delightedly by the pianist, and then a growing procession of encores — Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major op. 90 no. 3; Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C sharp minor; Otto Schulhof’s tender music-box mélange of Strauss Waltzes; and Schubert’s popular Moment Musical in F minor, whose rhythmic intro was accompanied by enthusiastic clapping (the pianist smiled at his assemblage in birthday boy approval). It would have been an ideal conclusion to a brilliant evening, but the Japanese audience would not let the moment go — the clapping continued, cascading into louder bursts with each reappearance of the maestro. Finally he consented to play a final Chopin Waltz (a short, posthumous one in B minor), after which the crowd was happy simply to cheer and clap fortissimo as Badura-Skoda stood to gaze upon them, hands folded across his chest in gratitude. Appreciation for a lifetime of concerts in this most poetic of countries, it is a scene I never expect to re-encounter. And it was then, too, that I fully felt the magnitude of the moment.

As Kayoko and I made our way through the exiting throngs to the backstage entrance, I reflected on other farewell piano recitals in Japan — by cigar-chomping Leonid Kreutzer; beloved Viennese pedagogue Max Eggers; Busoni disciple Leo Sirota — and it hit me hard, that I had witnessed something of the passing of pianistic history. Indeed, I wonder if we have simply come to the end of the Era of Keyboard Aristocracy. As a student in New York, I had been privileged to hear incredible piano recitals by Claudio Arrau, Magda Tagliaferro, Annie Fischer, and by my own count about 40 concerts of my own teacher Rudolf Firkušný; later in life I came to know Gunnar Johansen in Madison, Kiyoko Tanaka in Tokyo, Anthony di Bonaventura in Boston and Reah Sadowsky in San Francisco. Many speak nostalgically of such artists as people of great personality, but of course every age has its great personalities. For me, these towering pianists all possessed a European-inflected style and elegance as well, which encompassed a sincere humility and deference to the composer’s message on stage — a reverential, devotional obligation. It is that commitment, that sense of integral artistic approach — call it an awareness of God in the calling of music, if you will — that I fear is now lost, or all but so.

Thanks to the sensitive, well-worked hands of Paul Badura-Skoda, I could experience that majesty once more, for a couple of unforgettable Japanese evenings. The sound of that haunting beauty on stage in the Land of the Rising Sun, will forever linger in my ear, my mind, and in my musical core.


Paul Badura-Skoda in Japan

Posted on: June 12th, 2014 by SDB 2 Comments

With Paul Badura-Skoda in Shanghai, December 2013


Nagoya, Japan, 12 June 2014

Last evening I was among the fortunate 400 or so people, privileged beyond measure, to hear Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda give a recital — or more properly, a communion — of works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, at the Munetsugu Concert Hall in Nagoya. It was the next-to-last performance on a Japanese recital tour billed as Badura-Skoda’s last in that country. But at a youthful 86 years young, he essayed a probing evening of artistry that would have drained any pianist half his age.

The core of his program was an examination of Stile patetico (the “pathetic style” — see my earlier blog entry), as exemplified in three Sonatas in the key of C minor, one each by Haydn (Hob. XVII / 20), Mozart (KV 457) and Beethoven (op. 13); and included as well the Variations in F minor of Haydn and Pastorale Sonata of Beethoven. There was much to admire and enjoy in every work played, but it was in the Haydn Sonata that Badura-Skoda revealed the fullest extent of his genius. Through the pianist’s exquisite pedalling and tonal control of the extraordinary chromatic passagework of the second movement Andante, and spellbinding grapple with the tragic Finale Allegro, Franz Joseph Haydn came to life in Nagoya as if we all had been whisked straight to the Court of Esterházy for a round of schnapps with the man. And the unforgettable sensation of the onstage musical dialogue was that of a mighty eagle in winter, high in his Alpine aerie, surveying the jagged landscape of mortality below him, contemplating the cloudy atmosphere above and beyond — not in peaceful acceptance but in noble, defiantly proud rage.

Backstage afterwards, the genial and humble European gentleman underneath all of that Faustian musical ability reappeared, asking if the program had been too long, and alluded to the hard demands of a long tour in a foreign country. Then happily suggested, why don’t I come along to Ibaraki (north of Tokyo) in a couple of days to hear him play another program, of works by Chopin and Schubert (the last Sonata, in B flat major). Who indeed would want to miss that? So to say, shinkansen tickets were changed, and my much-needed rest in Osaka will have to wait for another 72 hours. I have a date with Franz Schubert at Ibaraki’s Bando Civic Hall on June 14th, and I need to hear what that composer has to say to me, to Paul Badura-Skoda, and to us all.

Hearing Philippa

Posted on: April 20th, 2014 by SDB 6 Comments


I have long been fascinated by the brave and sorely-neglected American pianist and composer Philippa Duke Schuyler (1931-1967). Her story is astoundingly told in the book “Composition in Black and White” by Kathryn Talalay — a volume I unhesitatingly place among my top ten ever written about the life and work of concert pianists. It is published by Oxford, and you must read it, for it tells Philippa’s courageous story with manifold colors, incisive research, and unparallelled sensitivity. I will not recapitulate that story here; it is too complex, too painful, too personal for me as well, in the sense that I feel close to many of the prejudices that Philippa experienced, though from a different lens. You may find out more about all of that elsewhere, on the internet.

Classical music has never existed on a spiritually pure level, and the lives of its creators and protagonists are inextricably bound with the political and social realities of their times. That Philippa made her way in a world of incomprehensible prejudice, speaks volumes about her brilliance and fortitude. Contemplating that, I see her story as no tragedy at all, but an inspirational miracle. She is, indeed, one of my idols.

And the music? The playing? For me, it has been one of the greatest musical frustrations of all, that Philippa Schuyler’s recordings are near-impossible to locate, and have never been re-issued on CD. You cannot find a single note of her playing on YouTube. Her many compositions exist primarily in manuscript form in libraries, a mere dollop of which have been edited and published in obscure collections. Will I live long enough to hear or perform her White Nile Suite for piano and orchestra? Will any American orchestra program her Manhattan Nocturne, written for and played by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Rudolf Ganz, when she was but 13 years of age? It has not been heard since 1946.

Through dint of years of perseverence and scouring of record collections, I found two pristine LPs of Philippa Schuyler, and recently sat down with my dear friend Mark Ainley (of the indispensible website The Piano Files) to listen to the recordings. Excepting a frustrating attempt to hear through headphones a reel-to-reel tape of Philippa’s amazing live performance (aged 14) of the Saint-Säens Piano Concerto no. 2 with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium — standing in a noisy hallway of the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library some five years ago — this was the first time I could really assess the extent of Philippa Schuyler’s pianistic artistry.

It is a widely mixed bag, attesting to the life of struggle, hard travel and personal crises she lived. International Favorites: Philippa Schuyler, pianist (Middle-Tone Records, New York), features a diverse recital program ranging from a poorly conceived and executed mini-rendition of themes from George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”; through a stolid, unexceptional performance of Franz Liszt’s Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody; to an astounding interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” with gorgeous array of colors, bold tempi and personal touches especially highlighting voicing and contrapuntal lines I have never heard any other pianist approach.

A second LP, which I assume to have been made a bit earlier (judging from the cover photo and liner notes), is called Pianologue: Philippa Duke Schuyler (Circe Records CLP 101, New York). It features one side of varied short compositions and arrangements by Schuyler utilizing native folk themes from countries where she concertized such as Japan, China, Uganda, Ethiopia, France, Haiti and Chile. To some degree the pieces reminded me of similar “souvenir” works by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and in the main I found them a trifle naïve and dated. But on the flip side of this LP is arguably Schuyler’s greatest recording of all, a traversal of the Bach-Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A minor that is simply jaw-dropping in terms of its rhythmic intensity, clarity of contrapuntal voicing, and dramatic power.

She was one of the great originals of her time, a trailblazing virtuosa and creative genius, and she needs to be heard. It is long past time for America, and the world, to recognize and celebrate the magnificent and proud artistry of Philippa Schuyler.

Philippa Schuyler on the cover of Sepia magazine, 1962.

“an artist of major stature…
a personable, graceful young woman possessed of fine pianistic technique,
ample tone power, and a subtle skill in etching pictures in sound.”
– The Musical Courier


Posted on: March 26th, 2014 by SDB 3 Comments


I’ve been on the road a fair bit this winter, playing a program of American, Russian and Spanish music in such varied locales as Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Tucson, Arizona; as well as several Mozart Piano Concertos in Edmonton, Toledo and Tupelo, Mississippi — birthplace of Elvis Presley and home to the best biscuits and gravy I have eaten. But it was last weekend’s recital in Sechelt, British Columbia that brought me to the heights, literally and figuratively. First of all, the heights of non-instrument altitude, as I travelled to the concert by my favorite mode of transport, a four-seat float plane across the Georgia Strait to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. Upon arrival, I was greeted by an eye-popping view of the Raven’s Cry Theatre marquee, where my name was linked to that of another pianist who sports large round glasses.

I believe that the proper appellation of “Sir” was omitted from Mr. John’s name, but then again they forgot to title me Madame Buechner, as well. And they would have had to buy a bigger sign for that, anyway.

I got a lovely review for my recital program from Joan Reinthaler in the March 10 edition of the Washington Post, which you can read here:

Sara Davis Buechner at the National Gallery

Hand to Hand

Posted on: March 20th, 2014 by SDB No Comments

The flying hands of Reah Sadowsky, 95 years young, in 2011.


San Francisco, California
19 March 2014

This past week, I received the great personal distinction of being admitted as an Honorary Member of the Berkeley Piano Club (possibly the first), an historic musical organization founded in 1893. Consequently I was invited to the Bay Area to give a recital and lecture at the BPC, during one of the loveliest early spring weeks in the East Bay that I can recall. The Club is housed in a landmarked building near UC-Berkeley, and has been host to some historic events including a lecture by Nicolas Slonimsky in 1971. It is claimed that a Manhattan Project scientist designed the triggering mechanism to the Atomic Bomb in an upstairs room of the Club, hopefully not while a concert was taking place in the downstairs recital hall.

My presentations in Berkeley were dedicated to the memory of legendary American pianist Reah Sadowsky (1915 – 2012), a dear personal friend whose eternally youthful style seemed to defy all sense of mortality. She was a longtime member and former President of the BPC, and a fervent supporter of its goals to provide support and scholarships to young musicians. On my program I included some South American works of Francisco Mignone and Fructuoso Vianna, taken from Reah’s repertoire. Here is Vianna’s stupendous “Corta-Jaca,” recorded by Reah Sadowsky in 1947:


The Berkeley Piano Club is an all-female organization, and as such I count this as the third “female” honor I have received in my lifetime. In 2010, I gave the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecture at Brandeis University, and the following year played a solo recital in Washington D.C. for my induction into the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I take particular pride in these personal achievements, feeling strongly that women climb a far harder ladder than men in all fields, including and perhaps even especially the arts. And I am even more proud to have known Reah Sadowsky as a special friend, honored to be a musician continuing in her path which was one of wholesale dedication to her art.

After last Sunday’s recital, some members of the Berkeley Piano Club mentioned to me that they wished Reah — who adored Russian music above all and played many American premières of works by Prokofieff and Shostakovich — could have heard that day’s performance of several Arensky salon pieces and Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka.” Feeling clearly the designs of Reah’s amazing hands (pictured above) upon my own, I simply responded, oh yes indeed, I was certain that she heard all of that.


Going Dutch

Posted on: October 2nd, 2013 by SDB 7 Comments


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Sara Davis Buechner opines on various things Dutch, musical and non.
Here is her own short list of important Dutch classical composers:

Louis Andriessen (b. 1939)
Henk Badings (1907 – 1987)
Marius Flothuis (1914 – 2001)
Cor de Groot (1914 – 1993)
Willem Pijper (1894 – 1947)
Juilius Röntgen (1855 – 1932)
Martinus Sieveking (1867 – 1950)
Leo Smit (1900 – 1943)
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562 – 1621)
Wim Zwaag (b. 1960)