April 13, 2023
By D.T. Baker, Musicologist
It’s pretty much a given that Sara Davis Buechner is part of the Edmonton Symphony family by now. The versatile pianist is about to make her eleventh appearance with the orchestra – extending a relationship that dates back 16 years. Over that time, she’s been asked to demonstrate an extraordinary range – and she has done so with brilliance and humour – everything from a repertoire-stretching Lighter Classics concert of rhapsodies to an outdoor Tchaikovsky concerto at Symphony Under the Sky.
“I love playing in Edmonton,” she says. “It’s a spectacular hall, and a terrific, first-rate orchestra. I’ve always been fortunate to have excellent conductors.”
And she will again. Another ESO favourite, conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni, will perform with Ms. Buechner for the first time, presenting Rachmaninoff’s evergreen Second Piano Concerto – perhaps the most often-performed concerto out there.
“I probably wouldn’t argue with you,” she says of that assertion. “If you read up about historic pianists and performances, there are several works that are very beloved. I think the Grieg A minor is certainly one of those, the Rach Two – the Rach Three, for a time, the Tchaikovsky (B-flat minor) when Van Cliburn was at the pinnacle of his fame, was played everywhere. I think when Rach 3 was really hot, then Rach 2 kind of receded. The Grieg, the Tchaikovsky, and the Rachmaninoff – all upper echelon – all have such beautiful melodies.”
It's kind of strange, given that Ms. Buechner has been here so often, that her last time here – a pre-pandemic Masters concert in 2019 – marked her first time playing any Rachmaninoff with the ESO, when she soloed in the Paganini Rhapsody. So, is Rachmaninoff a recent add-on in her long career?
“No, no, in fact when I was 18, I played the Rachmaninoff Number One with the Juilliard Orchestra; it was one of the first concertos I ever played,” she states. “And soon after, I played Rach Two for the first time. I played it in an outdoor concert in Indianapolis. And you know, you play hundreds or thousands of concerts in your life, and the specifics of any one concert disappear fairly quickly – unless something so incredibly great or incredibly wrong occurs. And I’ll always remember playing Rach Two outdoors in Indianapolis because – mosquitoes. I never had to play a concerto while slapping away mosquitos.” She remembered to use bug spray before her Symphony Under the Sky performance in 2012.
Sara Davis Buechner’s familiarity with the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto has necessitated purchasing a new score “because I’ve played it a million times and the score was all marked up,” she explains. Keeping such a treasured piece fresh is something she takes seriously, and deliberately, so the new score helps. “It’s good to sit down and look at it, for me not so much for interpretational reasons, but to say let’s look at that again and put in all the fingerings and all the arrangements for how I’m going to play that. And I’m curious if that’s the same as I’ve chosen before. And very often it is, but the process of re-working it in your mind freshens it up, and makes it seem new. If anything, I like to think, well, how do I feel about this piece today, or how do I feel about this piece this year? I’d like to think that I’m a slightly different person now than I was last year, or two years ago or three years ago.”
Ms. Buechner looks forward to the next fresh performance of a concerto that has become an old friend. “It has a kind of shining, breakthrough feeling – each movement has some sort of feeling of that,” she feels. “It’s one of the first of Rachmaninoff’s works that has this sort of perfect architecture. Musicologists always seem willing to tear apart Rachmaninoff, because god forbid someone should actually write a beautiful melody! The melodies have this glorious shining to them – that major climax in the middle of the second movement that blows into C-sharp Major – it’s extraordinary.”
Sergei Rachmaninoff was, for years, a composer critics loved to hate – his Romantic tastes far outlived the Romantic era, and his insistence on tonal melodies and grandly accessible music was considered out of step among a certain element of 20th-century musicians. But it certainly says something that nearly the entire output of Rachmaninoff’s career is still part of the standard repertoire today, and Sara Davis Buechner is not surprised.
“I think you have to trust the public’s judgement on this,” she insists. “Things that are incredibly popular always have a reason – whether it’s good or bad, that can be open to debate. But with that piece, it’s so glorious, it’s so wonderful.”
Sara Davis Buechner Plays Rachmaninoff 2 takes place on April 28 & 29 at 7:30 PM. Tickets start at $25 plus fees. Get yours here.
Sara Davis Buechner Plays Rachmaninoff 2
April 28 & 29 ● 7:30 PM