Chatting with Sara Davis Buechner
Sara Davis Buechner was a winner of the first iteration of the American Pianists Awards, then known as the Beethoven Foundation Fellowship Auditions. From that point, she went on to win several international competitions and has enjoyed a broad performing and teaching career.
American Pianists Association's Lee Clifford chatted with Sara about winning that first competition, the serendipity of sight-reading and the diverse set of composers she will feature in her upcoming concert. She also discusses her memories of one of our founders, Victor Borge, and the recent debut of her one-woman show to high acclaim.
Prefer reading? Following is a transcription of the discussion about her program for March 13, 2022:
Let’s talk about your upcoming concert in Indianapolis. You have crafted a very intriguing program, starting with Baroque and Classical works before ending the first half with pieces by not-as-well-known Spanish composer Federico Longas. Is there a connection between these selections?
No. I wouldn’t say so. The first piece is the Handel. It is a transcription that was made by one of my teachers, a great pianist called Mieczysław Munz. He was a Polish pianist and a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni, and I was astonished to learn he wrote this beautiful piece and a couple of other beautiful transcriptions right around the time in the 1940s when he was discovering that his family was being shipped to Auschwitz. It’s so staggering that such a work of beautiful serenity would come out of his mind and hand at that time.
So, I play that as a tribute to him. The piece is in E-flat major, and it’s a wonderful lead-in to the Sonata in B-flat that follows, so I tend to play those together—I don’t take a break between those two. It is a warmup, and Mozart is the main thing.
There is no connection between the Mozart and the Longas really whatsoever other than I like the rhythm of each. The Longas is a set of pieces that is quite interesting to me. I’ve played a lot of Spanish music, but this is a composer that I hadn’t known very much about before. A few years ago, I was in Victoria, British Columbia, and I was warming up before a concert with the orchestra there using a piano teacher’s studio at the University. There were some collections of piano music on the shelves, and to warm up I wanted to sight read something. I took one of the volumes down, opened it, and here is Federico Longas! The piece was called "Sueño en Granada." I played it and thought, “that’s really beautiful!”
I read more about the composer. His biggest piano piece is called "Aragón," and it is dedicated to Vladimir Horowitz, so it’s written for a really first-class virtuoso—it’s a big, showy, splashy Spanish piano piece. There are a couple of recordings of it on YouTube, but in general it’s just not very well known.
I found out that Longas was one of the favorite piano students of Enrique Granados, and he founded his own music school in Barcelona before coming over to the United States for an extended tour. He performed his own concerto with the New York Philharmonic and had some big successes as a pianist and composer in the 1940s. This is the kind of detective story I like, digging up this music by Federico Longas. I recently recorded this music in Boston and hopefully will come out with an album next year.
Wonderful, colorful, exuberant, lovely and very accessible Spanish music I would say.
The second half features your own compositions titled “A New York Sketchbook” which you wrote in the 1980s while living in the city. I know you spent a good amount of time walking the city and collecting your thoughts. What can you tell us about these works?
That’s one of the first things that I composed. In my later 20s I went back to school and took some composition lessons with a wonderful babushka. I wrote a number of piano suites, some songs and a work for violin and piano as well.
My teacher encouraged me to go into composition, but that’s another 8 hours a day in addition to piano and I didn’t love it that much! So, I put those pieces away into a drawer for a long time. Later I was approached by a publishing company, and they knew I had written some music. I shared it with them, and they wanted to publish all of it! That gave me a renewed confidence about composing.
The works on this program were written in 1988 or 1989, and the first piece is an evocation of Riverside Park, with the chimes in the background. The second piece is kind of a hopelessly romantic waltz like what you imagine should happen in a New York fall setting with maybe Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, but it never turns out like that. And the last piece is my attempt—I was living in the Bronx at the time—to turn car horns into music. A little like Gershwin’s use of horns in "An American in Paris." I’ll talk about this more in the concert.
The final selections are Gershwin foxtrots transcribed from acoustic recordings and piano rolls. A great friend of the organization collects old rolls, and I’m sure he would be interested in your process. Did you do the transcription of these?
Only one. Three of them had been noted down by various people. The one called "Do – Do – Do," I did not write it down on paper. I listened to the recording so many times and played along with it, which I think is how a lot of jazzers and house piano players in the 1910s and 1920s would have learned things. Of course, that’s a rich repository of great American music that is largely un-notated. So much of it we have lost, but the young Gershwin in his teens cut hundreds of player piano rolls. That was his craft. He was training his left hand to do these foxtrot bases and the fabulous melodies. If you study and do a lot of listening, it absolutely affects the way you hear his concert music of later years, the "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris," "Porgy and Bess" and all these things. His conservatory training was foxtrots on player piano rolls its amazing stuff!
Sara Davis Buechner performs at 3:30pm Sunday March 13, 2022 at the Indiana History Center. Get tickets!