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Archive for the ‘Piano Pedagogy’ Category

Reynaldo Reyes (♰14 February 2016)

Posted on: February 15th, 2016 by SDB No Comments


Reynaldo Reyes, the brilliant Filipino virtuoso who taught me the piano in my first ten years, aged 6 to 16 — taking me from C-D-E to Islamey — passed away on the evening of Valentine’s Day. Last year I wrote about Reynaldo at the time of his retirement celebration (“The Cosmo Man”), and here you can read a complete obituary, prepared by his wife and edited by myself.

Donations in Reynaldo’s memory can be made to:
c/o PNC Bank
409 Washington Avenue, Towson MD 21204 (USA)

I was fortunate to be with Reynaldo in his final days, and a family relative took this photograph of our interlocked hands. It will suffice for now, to tell in image what cannot be expressed in words — the depth of a musical bond which can never be broken.


The Cosmo Man

Posted on: April 19th, 2015 by SDB No Comments

Reynaldo Reyes at the piano, in traditional Filipino barong tagalog


20 April 2015

Last weekend I had the privilege of being part of Towson University’s 50th Anniversary Retirement Celebration for Filipino pianist Reynaldo Reyes, who has been an integral part of that institution, and musical life in Baltimore, for a half-century. Mr. Reyes was my musical father. He taught me to play the piano, during the crucial formative years of my life (ages 5 to 16) — taking me from Leila Fletcher’s Book One all the way to Balakirev’s Islamey. But that fact by itself merely hints at a mentoring relationship of extraordinary generosity, creativity and vitality. Indeed, when I try to describe Reynaldo Reyes, the words that emerge are all from the world of music — brioso, con fuoco, molto energio ma sempre espressivo and, to quote from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 101, mit der Innigsten Empfindung.

He was born into the broiler of the Pacific World War, in a time and place of extreme hardship. That his mother was able to procure an upright piano in his native Phillipine village of Alitagtag, was a miracle; Reynaldo’s weekly 6-mile barefoot walks with his sister to and from their early piano lessons was a second miracle; and the survival of young Reynaldo, his family, and even the family instrument yet a third miracle — for the Japanese occupying force burned his town to the ground upon their retreat in the closing chaotic time of the Great War, not long before atomic weapons visited destruction upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite all of this, Reynaldo learned to master the piano with such brilliance that he was sent on a Philippine government scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire for study with the great pianists Marguerite Long (1874-1966), Jean Doyen (1907-1982) and Jacques Février (1900-1979).

Among Rey’s graduating prizes in Paris were Grand Prix in sight-reading and solfège — necessary skills much-neglected by pianists these days — and he is without question the greatest score- and sight-reader I have ever witnessed. After coming to Baltimore in 1958, he worked with Mieczyslaw Münz (1900-1976), an important disciple of Ferruccio Busoni; and he brought me to play for Münz also, when I was still a teenager.

Reynaldo Reyes racked up a fine shelf of international piano competition awards including 2nd Prize in the Busoni Competition of 1962. He could have easily pursued the career of a touring virtuoso. But he chose instead to make Baltimore his home base, to the good fortune of the many generations of pianists who have thrived under his tutelage, fellow musicians who have shared in his wonderful chamber collaborations, and audiences in the Baltimore – Washington area where his name is well-known. I was as inspired by his many recitals (encompassing the whole of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Debussy’s Préludes and Études, Chopin’s Scherzi, Ballades and Préludes, the complete Sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, the Variation works of Brahms, and transcriptions of every stripe imaginable), as I was by his magnificent pedagogy. On stage his technical wizardry and personal passion just sizzled.

It was Busoni’s philosophy of the piano that hovered over my decade of lessons — the piano as instrument for the greatest possible realization of the composer’s intentions and poetic message. Whether executing the manifold Baroque ornamentations of a Bach Suite, untangling technical knots in Liszt’s Études, or coloring the pointillistic imagery of Debussy’s Préludes, Mr. Reyes always kept my sights focused on the discovery and ultimate sharing of the composers’ emotions with my audience. It mattered not whether that was an audience of one, in my teacher’s studio, or an audience of thousands in a large concert hall. I learned that music is a communicative art of the utmost obligation and importance.

He is the most cosmopolitan of men, and it is that aspect of his personality that I recall fondly, when recounting the time of my studies. In the course of our frequent and long lessons, his office phone would ring, to be answered in any number of languages with which Rey was fluent — English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Tagalog, Greek (he seemed to have a good working knowledge of Russian, Japanese and other tongues as well) — his conversations ever laced with bounteous good humor and an infectious laugh. From his appreciation of all the worlds’ countries and cultures, Reynaldo instilled in me a profound admiration for the sheer vastness of the human experience. And in turn I acquired a similar thirst for the bountiful literature written for our instrument, the piano, which only continues to grow without end.

It is hard for any child to speak of their own parents without sentimental attachment, and so it is for myself with Reynaldo Reyes. My own remarks given at his retirement concert can be read below, and they contain some cherished personal narratives. I hope you enjoy them, and join me in saluting a remarkable musician of wondrous scope, vision, energy and spiritual inspiration. Fifty years and counting, Reynaldo Reyes… the Cosmo Man.

Reyes Retirement Speech by SDB (4.11.2015)


Souvenir de Porto Rico

Posted on: March 27th, 2015 by SDB 5 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 María 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.


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.

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.

Joseph Lamb and Ragtime

Posted on: January 12th, 2013 by SDB 3 Comments


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Pedaling Arensky

Posted on: November 6th, 2012 by SDB 4 Comments


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Martinů – Fantasy and Toccata

Posted on: August 8th, 2012 by SDB 2 Comments

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Pianist Sara Davis Buechner lectures on, and demonstrates Bohuslav Martinů’s Fantasy and Toccata which was dedicated to Rudolf Firkušný. Read the review of Buechner’s performance of the Martinu Fantasy and Toccata in The Martinu Revue (PDF), printed in the Czech Republic.

Chopin looks backwards

Posted on: July 26th, 2012 by SDB 1 Comment

Today’s little blog post comes as a result of my daily sight-reading warm-up at the piano. When the time is available I like to extend my knowledge of the keyboard repertory along with the digits of my hand and the sinew of my arm muscles — usually accompanied by lubrication of my throat with hot coffee.

A few days ago I chanced upon a rare Russian edition of Etudes by Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785 – 1849), a well-known Parisian piano pedagogue in the early 19th-century, chiefly remembered now because of Frédéric Chopin’s desire to study with him (which never came to pass). Writers have occasionally commented on the conundrum of a young genius like Chopin wishing to work with a rather well-oiled hack teacher and churner-out of workmanlike Etudes like the vain Kalkbrenner.

I was interested to see the reality of Kalkbrenner’s Etudes, and was not disappointed by what I encountered — nothing rotten at all, but not much-inspired nor stylistically beyond similar works of Czerny and Clementi. It is chiefly in his handling of harmony and counterpoint that one sees a certain novel attention to pianistic detail and physical possibility that perhaps caught the eye of the young Frédéric Chopin.

It was this passage from Kalkbrenner’s Etude in A minor op. 126 no. 7 that caught my own eye, while playing through it this morning. Because the rapid-moving chromatic chords reminded me instantly of a similar passage in Chopin’s marvelous Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 65 (in the first movement). Hardly do I suspect plagiarism on Chopin’s part, and the passages are different enough anyway to obviate that possibility. But I do think of ideas, harmonies, sounds and colors stowed away in the brain for years and years; after all, we all have the experience of remembering something long-forgotten. In that context I wonder if Chopin, at the end of his all-too-short life when essaying his Cello Sonata (one of his very greatest works, in my humble opinion), had a brief rememberance of a pianistic idol from his teenage years — an idol who had long before similarly dashed off a difficult chordal passage of digital élan and bravura in rapidly moving chromatic chords.