Beyond the standards

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After moving here from New York, Sara Davis Buechner has found personal freedom to match her adventurous musical tastes.

If you would like to make a new friend, just show Sara Davis Buechner where she can find her favourite dairy treat, the egg cream.

"I think I'll probably have to explain that to you," she says, calling from her West End apartment. "An egg cream is a drink that contains neither egg nor cream but that is a mix of seltzer water, flavoured syrup, and maybe a dollop of ice cream or milk or something like that. You mix it together, and it's kind of like a low-cal milk shake."

Egg creams are ubiquitous in New York City, she adds, and they're just about the only thing she misses about North America's cultural capital. Since moving from the Bronx to Vancouver in August 2003, the pianist and UBC music prof has found that while the wild West Coast is short on seltzer drinks, it's not without new and thrilling opportunities.

"When New Yorkers are parochial enough to ask me, 'Ah, well, whatta they got out there we don't got here?' the very first thing that comes to my mind is 'When you live in New York, do you ever get to go to your concerts by floatplane?' And the answer is 'No.'"

She laughs, and adds: "New York is a vast and cosmopolitan place. Vancouver is not vast, but it certainly is extremely cosmopolitan."

Perhaps more cosmopolitan than New York, in some ways. Canada, she explains, has been very responsive to a musician whose interests run from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to 20th-century modernists like Ferruccio Busoni and Charles Wuorinen; who has an unusual fondness for ragtime; and whose own compositions mix impressionistic techniques with jazz harmony.

"I have a very eclectic personality, and very broad interests–which never seems strange to me, but other people point it out," says Buechner. "Most concert pianists probably have an active repertoire of about 25 piano concertos, and I play more than 100. And I don't think that's because I'm smarter than anyone else or that I'm a better pianist. I just feel like there's all that music, and I want to hear it, and I want to play it, and I want to know it. I'm just a very hungry person, I suppose."

It's not just wider performing opportunities and the occasional Beaver flight that have Buechner enthused about this country, however. A more immediate pleasure is that here, she really gets to be herself–and as the pianist is a male-to-female transgendered person who further blurs gender lines by living with a woman, that's no small thing.

"Just as one example, it's almost shocking that my partner, Kyoko, and I can walk anywhere hand in hand here, and we don't think twice about it," she notes. "In New York, I wouldn't do it. In Greenwich Village, maybe, because it's understood that that's where the gay people are. Well, here in Canada, I feel like the gay people are everywhere. There's not more of them; it's just easier here to be out."

Buechner doesn't make a big deal about her sexual orientation. In fact, she's mildly peeved that her Wikipedia entry begins "Sara Davis Buechner is a transsexual American concert pianist and educator." Becoming a woman was simply the only way she could continue to live her life in an honest way–which is not, she admits, how others around her saw it.

"For me, it was like a total relief," she says. "'Oh, now I know what I'm going to do!' But then the fun started all around me. It was like watching some movie where everybody's running away from the falling buildings of 9/11. You say, 'Where's the catastrophe? What's the problem?' But you can imagine: family, friends, job”¦everything collapsing in ruins around me, while inside I'm going, 'Ah, I have my inner peace.'"

And she laughs again. Humour, she contends, is one way transgendered people maintain their equilibrium in the face of the kind of misapprehension that has seen some American concert promoters pay her not to play after they've learned of her personal history. And storytelling is also something she tries to work into her performances wherever possible.

"Audiences like to hear you speak about yourself, and about the music, as part of the presentation," Buechner contends. "So for the past five or six years I've just gotten in the habit of chatting with the audience about the piece I'm about to play–and not in a dull or academic way, but interrelated with personal stories."

Not all of her anecdotes will play in Peoria, she notes: "I'm generally very careful when talking to an audience. Some of them may know I'm transgendered; many of them do not. But that's not the point of the evening. It's about the music."

Nonetheless, she's pleased that in gay-friendly Vancouver, she can sometimes lower her guard. "I can talk to that crowd, and if I say, 'When I was a little boy,' you know, they're not going to be shocked," she explains. "That's extremely liberating. I only wish that in all of my recitals I could talk so freely, because I certainly have a wealth of stories from both sides of the gender wall. Some of them are very, very funny–and you can't go wrong with good material!"

With her wit, her virtuosity, and her on-stage poise, Buechner is a genuine addition to cultural life in this city–and if she can solve that egg-cream conundrum, it looks like she's here to stay.