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INTERVIEW WITH SARA DAVIS BUECHNER

 

Q: BACKGROUND

When I was about three years old, I remember learning how to tell the afternoon time of 4:30 p.m. each weekday, from the opening tag line of a classical radio show that began with Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.” That music just galvanized me, excited me every time I heard it. I looked forward to that excitement every day. It was obvious that I had some special affinity from music from an early age that was not easily explained. Soon after, my brother began to take piano lessons. We had a used baby grand piano in our living room. The teacher, whose name was Veronika Wolf, came to our house once a week. I begged for lessons but she said I was too young. Eventually my mother forced her to listen to me. I could play all of my brother’s pieces without instruction, and could read music notation without any training. Right away Miss Wolf began to teach me! I’m happy to say that, 45 years later, I am still in touch with my first teacher who lives in Israel where she is known as a great pedagogue, a fine composer, and a former Dean of the Jerusalem Conservatory. She’s proud of me, and I’ve had the pleasure of playing some of her very atonal piano scores, too.

Q: ROLE MODELS

I love creativity in all its forms and my role models are hardly limited to fellow musicians. As a pianist I always wished to follow in the profoundly important tracks of Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, Dinu Lipatti, Clara Haskil, and my own teacher at Juilliard, the late Rudolf Firkusny. But my own approach to the piano and its sounds has been deeply influenced by flamenco and kabuki dance, the motion pictures of Kurasawa, Naruse and Charlie Chaplin, the paintings of Vermeer and Renoir, the writing of J.D. Salinger. Willa Cather and Shusaku Endo, grand American architecture of the Art Deco era, the baseball artistry of Jim Palmer, Don Mattingly, Kei Igawa and Ichiro Suzuki, and even witnessing the varied religious services of the Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic and 7th Day Adventist faiths. I’m lucky that in my life so far I’ve been able to experience this amalgam of the human experience, to be able to travel and enjoy other cultures in a way my own parents and grandparents could not.

In the summer of 2001 I spent an afternoon with Kay Friml, the fourth and last wife of the legendary operetta composer Rudolf Friml, at her elegant home in the Hollywood Hills (purchased in the 1930s from Ginger Rogers). She was then a spunky Chinese-American women in her 90s who tore around Los Angeles in a sportscar. Mrs. Friml passed away in 2007.

Q: POIGNANT MOMENTS

Well, too many to mention. Separating from a lover at the Gare Central de Paris would be the most cinematic, perhaps. Standing amidst the uncountable mass graves in the killing fields of Okinawa -- five to ten bodies per marker, in all directions as far as the eye can see -- would be the most chilling. But I’m lucky in that almost every time I sit at the piano with a beloved piece of music, it unfolds with great poignancy for me. And less pain than that evening in Paris, or that chilly afternoon in Naha, Okinawa.

Q: GENDER CHANGE AND ARTISTRY

This is, for me, the 60 Million Dollar Question, and I still don’t have a definitive reply to it. I find that what has happened to me as a pianist, since becoming a public woman in 1998, is simply that I have stopped being afraid to be me on stage -- wherever that leads. There was a period, briefly, after the change, when playing very “masculine” composers such as Beethoven (big and gruff) and Gershwin (brash and cigar-chompin’) felt strange. But I got over it fairly quickly. Pretty soon I found myself not hewing to any traditional definitions of masculine and feminine, in terms of artistic assumptions at least. Discarding my former persona enabled me to feel very, very free.

Q: ARTISTRY

You give a very comprehensive list of my teachers! (though Rudolf Serkin is a typo -- I never studied with him). I was very, very blessed all of my life to have wonderful teachers, most of them profoundly great pianists whose own work on stage was the best lesson of all. I live by the rule of: demonstrate to the student, and the worthy student will copy (the opposite of: those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach!). When I survey that list, I can think of specific things I gleaned from each... from Reyes, a theatrical flair for the stage; from Evans, a comprehensive architectural approach to my scores; from Aide, a systematic technical regimen; from Firkusny and Janis, the most wonderful inspiration for phrasing and color imaginable; and so on and so on. Some of the teachers you list here -- Johansen, Weiss, Munz -- were pupils of the legendary Ferruccio Busoni, and I sought them out because of that connection. In Busoni I saw the highest achievement imaginable for a pianist. He was much, much more: a composer, a writer, an intellect, a philosopher. In pianists like Liszt and Busoni we see people who transcended the instrument itself, to touch the very source of creative inspiration.

Q: REPERTORY

In 1976, when I arrived in New York City to begin my college studies at the Juilliard School (I had just turned 17), it became quickly apparent that I had much to learn in terms of the piano. Quite aside from my first piano lessons at Juilliard with Beveridge Webster, I could hear up and down the hallways of the school the incredible technique and repertoire of some of the very finest young talents in the world. It is an experience quite akin, I am sure, to a rookie phenom coming up to the major leagues and watching batting practice at Yankee Stadium. You realize very quickly at a place like Juilliard: it’s sink or swim time. Every minute I am not practicing, some one else is.

I realized at that time that one of my worst deficiencies was my poor sight-reading, the ability to look at a score and play it (hopefully well enough) without practicing for hours. It is a hard but necessary skill to acquire, like learning a foreign language for each composer in the classical canon. Mozart has his way of writing, Haydn his way, Brahms his way, etc. But I also realized that one of the world’s great resources also lay before me -- the extensive Juilliard Library. I resolved to try my best to read through every volume of piano music in the place, to teach myself the literature of the piano. There were probably about 12 rows of piano music in the place. I approached my task quite methodically, beginning with A (Isidor Achron’s Second Rhapsody) and ending with Z (the Efrem Zimbalist Piano Concerto). It took me about two years to accomplish this insane task, spending most mornings of my life about one to two hours just reading through piano music, before getting down to the actual practicing of pieces I was preparing for my lessons, recitals and competitions. Of course I skipped a lot of music, too -- mostly repertoire that didn’t fit my personality or hands very well, like Prokofieff. There are plenty of pianists who play that already anyway.

Along the way, of course, I discovered a lot of excellent music that is, for some inexplicable reason, never played. Sonatas of Jan Ladislav Dussek and George Frederick Pinto; Danzas of Mompou, Turina and Gottschalk; virginals music of Bull and Farnaby; piano music of Ibert, Martinu and Szymanowski. And this is not even taking into account the vast amount of repertoire by well-known composers most pianists DO play -- say, Haydn, Bartok, or Fauré -- or the enormous amount of contemporary music from every corner of the globe being composed even as I type this letter. Domenico Scarlatti alone wrote 555 Sonatas for the keyboard, almost all of which are excellent. There is really no excuse whatsoever for any pianist to come of age with a repertoire of just well-known works by Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofieff. Of course that’s great music, and it deserves to be played. But there is so much out there that goes UNplayed. And since I know a lot of that music, I feel like it’s part of my duty to bring it to light.

Pianists, I think, must must must be curious. They do not enjoy the luxury of a small repertoire!

Q: AFFINITIES

Having said all of that, of course I never learn pieces willy-nilly because they are unknown. I have my own tastes and distastes, and generally just follow my nose (or ear, I should say) in terms of what I learn, commit to memory, and perform. You list a lot of my recorded repertoire -- Mozart, Turina, Friml, Lamb, et al. -- and I am as curious as you to divine any common thread amongst those composers. But I’d say that, for me, the most important element in music is color. Of course by that I mean sonic color. When I play, for example, the “Vintner’s Daughter” Variations of Miklos Rozsa, I want the listener to experience the full panoply of emotions inherent in the work. I want them to SEE the vintner’s daughter falling asleep in her father’s grape field, and to SEE her dreams of the handsome Hungarian knights coming to court her. What is the vintner’s daughter wearing? What is the color of the sky that afternoon? How brightly burns the sun, or are there wafting clouds above? How is the green of the grape fields? What do the knights wear? Are they tall, short, black-haired, blond? What words do they say to woo her? And upon waking after her dreams, does the vintner’s daughter have flecks of teardrops at the corner of her eyes? All these details are inherent in the music, it is that rich in color. Miklos Rozsa was a fabulous composer, as anyone who has heard his scores to such cinematic masterpieces as “Double Indemnity,” “Ben-Hur” or “Spellbound” knows. He could see all those details in the portrait of the Vintner’s Daughter that he committed to the canvas of his musical score. It’s my job to bring it to as vivid life as I can.

 

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