Monday, March 30, 2015

When a Circle, Almost, Closes

It used to jar me, those many years ago when I was new to Puerto Rico, and when the unbelievable and the amazing dropped into my life as nonchalantly as my cat might plop into my lap. Then I realized that the Classical idea of different gods ruling different places was true, and the Gods of Puerto Rico tend to be exuberant and wickedly funny.

So I no longer know how I came upon Sara Davis Buechner, though I suspect it was through surfing YouTube, and coming across a clip of “That’s Pathetic,” in which Dr. Sara Davis Buechner traces stile patetico from Beethoven to Mozart. Well, it was obvious: Buechner was one hell of a pianist, but who was she, and why had I not heard of her before?

Melancholy news, Dear Readers: The world is full of extraordinary musicians, and very few of them have climbed sufficiently high to have claimed your attention. But I was curious, and then spent a happy hour listening to a talk Buechner had given about piano pedagogy—not a topic that I, as a cellist, knew anything about, but still fascinating. And it was chilling to learn, as I did in the first five minutes, that even as a professor at the Manhattan School of Music—certainly one of our finest music schools—Buechner was encountering student who couldn’t play a four-octave scale.

All right, I still can’t wrap my head around it, but then I remembered: Thirty years ago, at a University of Wisconsin-Madison event, I met music majors (and I believe they were pianists) who couldn’t identify The Ride of the Valkyries. So, reluctantly, I’m forced to believe that there are piano students out there, about to graduate, about to become teachers of piano themselves, who cannot play scales. Unbelievable.   

Then the coincidences began piling up. I clicked on a New York Times clip (see below) and learned that Buechner had always been Buechner, but had not always been Sara. OK, as a gay man, my encountering a transgendered person is no big deal, but don’t think that it wasn’t a big deal in Buechner’s life. Like so many of us, it took her years to make the decision. After having been a child prodigy, studied on full scholarship Julliard, won many important piano competitions, and played with the most important orchestras in the States and abroad, she faced what I suspect was her most daunting challenge. She went to Thailand and got a sex change operation.

It was a disaster.

Medically, since the “doctor” botched the operation. Professionally, because she went from playing fifty concerts a year to playing almost none. She cycled into depression and hit the booze, and finally, nearly homeless, had to start teaching schoolchildren, since over two hundred universities and conservatories had turned her down. How good was she, this woman? Here’s The Washington Post:

Buechner is the pianist, but the score is the star...This artist becomes the picture of self-effacing restraint, putting thoughtful artistry in the full service of the music.....unceasing drive and intelligence.

Buechner got back on her feet and moved to Canada, where she found greater acceptance, and a job—at last—with the University of British Columbia. A former Juilliard classmate—married, and mother of four—offered to become her agent, and what did she have to lose? Today, Buechner is married to a Japanese woman, and has resumed playing professionally, though not yet with the likes of the New York Philharmonic, et al.

So then it was time to check out Buechner’s website, because in the clip from The New York Times, completely reinforced by the music on her homepage, I was hearing a pianist I had heard many, many times before, and thought I would never hear again.

I was hearing Gunnar Johansen.

When you put the right music with the right musician in the right setting—well, the word “magic” is poor stuff indeed. Johansen had been a grand-student of Liszt, and a student of Egon Petri, and he had a technique that few people else had. And that, I privately thought, was almost a shame, since he tended to play this fiendishly difficult music: Busoni, Friedmann, Liszt. But the magic for me came when he played something as transparently simple as the third movement of the Chopin Piano and Cello Sonata.

It fascinated me, those many months that we prepared it together, since even I could play the notes on the piano. The problem? The piano and the cello are embraced in a rapturous interchange: Think Heloise and Abalard, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde. When we finally performed the piece, I had learned more about phrasing and the exquisite placement of notes that made pianists of an earlier age so extraordinary.

I now think that it was the greater sum of many parts. There was this amazing sense that the music was surging—a deep ocean swell—but never that it was forced. In addition, Johansen varied ever so slightly the tempo within the bar and within a phrase, so that yes, the rhythm was there, but it was never utterly metronomic. (We once, for some reason, played with a metronome, and I was utterly astonished that Johansen got off with the metronome, sailed through the entire piece, and then roared, “WONDERFUL!”) As well, he had what used to be called a “delicate” touch, and much of that—I suspect—had to do with the release of a note, as much as the start of a note.

This is technical, and may not be true—I was and am a cellist. Nor does it matter to anyone but pianists, since if you were there, sitting at candlelight after one of Lorraine’s superb dinners (she was in the kitchen what he was in the studio), and someone summoned the courage to ask Gunnar to play, well, what did you hear?

It was smooth, it was creamy, it was the most polished and beautiful playing that I had heard a pianist make. And it was paradoxically the most utterly civilized and the most completely wild sound imaginable.

I say “wild” since there isn’t, I think, a word for something like the sound of Canada Geese flying overhead on a chilling, damp autumn night. Timeless. Completely connected to nature, almost nature itself.

And so I read her biography, and with whom did she study, among many others?


On to her blog, since I now was smitten, and electronic stalking is the fate of all bloggers. So then it was time to read about Paul Badura-Skoda: A familiar name, since he had been at Wisconsin and had been a great friend of the Johansens. And Buechner had had the same sensation on hearing Badura-Skoda as I had had hearing Johansen. Here’s what she wrote:

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.

Did I tell you that the “coincidences” were piling up? Because when I checked her schedule, I found that her next performance was the next day in…

…San Juan, Puerto Rico.

What to do? Our son was coming to dinner that night, and Mr. Fernández had a turkey to cook for the next day, since it was and it wasn’t Mamina’s birthday, but that wasn’t the point. She had decreed that it was, and had also decreed the turkey, and when any Puerto Rican mother decrees—and especially Mamina—well, you listen!

But Gunnar was stirring about, as the dead do occasionally, and telling me: Send Buechner an email and tell her you have a gift from Gunnar Johansen. Then take her a pound of coffee—why bring flowers when she’ll likely be flying out the next day?—and a copy of my book, Life, Death and Iguanas, since Gunnar plays a part in it.

But I stayed home, and now, of course, wish I hadn’t. I might have met an extraordinary musician, but that was hardly the point….

…I might have met an extraordinary person!