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Sara Says - Sara Davis Buechner invites you to share in her reflections on music, matters artistic and non, and the creatively fun things in life. Be a part of the conversation!

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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 4 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

Eye-popping

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9vzTEIQSps

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)

Vítezslava Kaprálová

Posted on: August 26th, 2013 by SDB No Comments

 

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Sara Davis Buechner introduces composer Vítezslava Kaprálová and performs Kapralova’s third April Prelude. Tragically, this remarkable composer died very young at the age of 25. She was the student and lover of composer Bohuslav Martinů . Kapralova dedicated her April Preludes to pianist Rudolf Firkušný who premiered these works in 1940.

New York Cubans

Posted on: July 10th, 2013 by SDB 5 Comments

 

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Sara Davis Buechner performs Cuban Danzas by Ignacio Cervantes and Cuban-Spanish composer Joaquin Nin-Culmell. Works include Cervantes’ Almendares and No llores Mas, followed by Joaquin Nin-Culmell’s version of the latter, from 12 Danzas Cubanas for piano. Buechner discusses New York Cuban pianists that have inspired her, and key biographical details of Cervantes’ life. Also included is a visual glimpse of historic New York City and Havana Harbor, Cuba during Cervantes’ time.

That’s Pathetic

Posted on: May 14th, 2013 by SDB No Comments

 

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Sara Davis Buechner performs parts of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata No. 8, Opus 13 in C minor, exploring the influences and origins of stile patetico in the Grave and Adagio Cantabile, the origins of the theme from the Adagio, and more.