Feature on Sara in ‘The Philadelphia Inquirer’

Feature on Sara in ‘The Philadelphia Inquirer’

Temple pianist of many lives embraces a new life in Philly

Now, years after that 1960s era when Philadelphia was a truly tough town, the well-traveled 47-year-old concert pianist has joined the Temple University faculty, calls the Philadelphia “a knockout” (no Rocky pun intended), and is likely to become a significant presence in the local classical music scene. Once she gets home from gigs from Northern California to Shanghai, she expects to be cheering on the Temple Owls, marveling at the Art Deco architecture of Suburban Station, and finding some way to explore the long-abandoned Divine Lorraine Hotel – “Just the name alone, I’m dying to go into that building” – that she somehow missed in decades past during brief visits to concertize with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

A striking presence with thick blonde hair, an outgoing manner, and intense stage presence, Buechner had expected to be on sabbatical this year from the University of British Columbia, at which she had the sort of tenured position many pianists long for. But hers has been a restless life, during which she has accumulated citizenship in two countries, two names, and an exuberant attitude in the face of a career fraught with setbacks that the wisest of teachers couldn’t have warned her about.

“Vancouver is a pretty livable city. I came to feel that Canadians are decent, hardworking, earnest people with a more advanced sense of social justice than in America,” said Buechner. “Every time I came back to play a concert on the East Coast, I’d sense how hungry people are, and how they push themselves and strive for things.”

When she applied for her Temple University associate professorship, she was chosen over 120 other candidates. “From the minute she walked on campus, it seemed like a perfect fit,” said Robert T. Stroker, dean of Boyer College and vice provost for the arts at Temple. “She’s an amazing artist … her passion just pours out of her.”

In a way, she also falls into line with Temple’s history of faculty pianists who visit the mainstream but don’t quite live there, such as Marian Filar, who survived the Holocaust and represented a unique confluence of pianistic schools; and now Charles Abramovic, a major Philadelphia presence, particularly in modern-music circles.

Although the young Buechner studied with major personalities such as Rudolf Firkusny at the Juilliard School and Byron Janis, her competition repertoire leaned toward unconventional items such as the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F. Now with a repertoire of 80-plus major concertos, she champions lesser-known works such as the Miklós Rósza Piano Concerto. On her recital Friday at Temple’s Rock Hall, she will play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but in the edition by the great 19th-century pianist Ferruccio Busoni. Her playing is that of an aggressive classicist – virtually no eccentricities, and with a crystalline sonority and steely conviction behind all she does. Here is a video of Buechner playing the “Adagio” from the Mozart Piano Sonata in E flat, K. 282:

Her life, however, wasn’t destined to be mainstream.

After building her considerable early career as David Buechner, she began a gender reassignment approximately 20 years ago. This year, she celebrated 10 years of marriage with Kayoko Segawa, a woman she met in Japan – all very different from what seems like a previous lifetime, when young Buechner was on the competition circuit, winning the Gina Bachauer Competition in 1984 and also entering the Van Cliburn and Tchaikovsky competitions.

“I got married young, was divorced in my early 30s, and knew what I would like to do but didn’t have the guts to do it,” she recalls. Then in 1996 she had what she called “this kind of epiphany, looking in the mirror and saying gender reassignment was “what I need to do to survive. I’d known it my entire life. It was like going through life with a suit of armor. And it was slowly killing me. It was getting harder and harder to get up in the morning. I was cranky and resentful. It impacted my personal relationships because I couldn’t define myself.”

The cost has been steep. She lost a teaching job (but can’t discuss it, having signed a nondisclosure agreement), had very few concerts for two years, and was turned down by a New York City co-op board when attempting to purchase an apartment. Her surgery. performed in Thailand, didn’t go well. Family didn’t take the gender change well.

“I wasn’t prepared that conductors who voiced words of support didn’t hire me for 15 years, and didn’t even answer phone calls,” she said.

Her salvation was in Canada, where she was at the University of British Columbia for 13 years.

Surprisingly, she discusses these matters without bitterness. When off-duty, without makeup, and wearing a baseball cap that accentuates her strong jawline, she might be mistakenly referred to with male pronouns. It simply rolls off her back. She has enough self-irony that she laughs about how the Japanese press once referred to her as a “blonde bombshell.”

You wonder what got her through. Partly, the answer is compassion.

“I was spending so much time unleashing my inner demons that I didn’t realize that some people do take it very personally. It’s hard on them. I remember one friend being mad at mad at me ‘because I liked David.’ That’s how some people saw it. When I look back on it now, I appreciate the learning curve. My mother came around – eventually. My father – to some extent. I have a good relationship with my brother – now.”

Musical attitudes shifted a bit. Once a pianist who saw music primarily in terms of structure, she now enjoys Chopin and Debussy, who weren’t always sticklers on those matters. In fact, she plays Chopin on Feb. 10, 2017, with the Temple University Orchestra.

If she has a signature piece, it’s Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (not a high-structure piece), which she has studied right down to the original manuscript. She also knows Gershwin’s songs so well that, on one radio appearance, she playfully translated “Do do do what you done done done before” from “Do Do Do” into Japanese.

Her love of the more yielding music of Mozart, though, isn’t a concession to femininity. Though Buechner continues to excel at big-fisted works such as Strauss’ Burleske, Mozart was there from the beginning. Besides, one of the liberating aspects of gender reassignment is various aspects of self-definition. The old David is still alive in her middle name – though softened with a final into Davis.

“During the transition, I thought that Beethoven with his unwashed hair and Gershwin with his cigars, I can’t play that super-macho stuff,” she says, “but now I like playing Gershwin and… ”

… smoking cigars.

“Would you like one?” she asks.

Her studio is full of life-size cardboard cutouts of baseball stars, whom she idolizes. “I remember reading transgender books that said you have to be quieter, nod a lot,” she recalls, “and then I thought, ‘Why learn all of that codified nonsense? That’s silly!’ ” She hasn’t paid much attention to the TV series Transparent or even the news coverage of Caitlyn Jenner – except to puzzle over Jenner’s Republican affiliations.

It’s become part of the landscape, she says, especially in the past five years. As far as Temple is concerned, it’s a non-issue. Says Stroker, “I don’t think we even talked about it.”