Before Franz Liszt, it was rare for pianists to do solo programs. But when Liszt was preparing to perform in London in 1840, an advertisement said that he would give “recitals on the pianoforte.”
The word confused many. How do you “recite” a piano piece? But Liszt had chosen deliberately: His recitals would offer not just an arbitrary mixture of scores but also, as with literary readings, a program with larger thematic threads, musical resonances and even personal significance.
His idea certainly caught on. Yet too many recitals today fall far short of the Lisztian ideal; they come across as just a string of performances of this and that.
But on Saturday, not one but two adventurous pianists gave recitals that harkened back to the form’s origins, drawing out musical, social and deeply personal connections. In the afternoon, at Theaterlab, an intimate space for experimental fare in Manhattan, Sara Davis Buechner presented “Of Pigs and Pianos,” an 80-minute performance in which she played while relating the story of her often grueling but finally triumphant gender transition. In the evening, at the 92nd Street Y, Conrad Tao juxtaposed major works by Schumann and Beethoven with more recent scores by John Adams, Jason Eckardt and Fred Hersch, along with the premiere of an intense new piece by Tao and several improvisations.
Though it had theatrical trappings — a simple set and projections of photographs — at its core, “Of Pigs and Pianos” was a recital, offering fine performances of nine varied and challenging works that poignantly defined moments in the journey of a courageous artist, now 62. Buechner’s story, though often wrenching, was rich with childhood fantasies, wistful longings and absurd turns that had the audience laughing along.
The title, “Of Pigs and Pianos,” comes from her early years, when she was asked by her first piano teacher what she wanted to be when she grew up. “A pig farmer and a piano player,” Buechner answered.
Buechner was born in the Chinese year of the pig, she said, adding that perhaps the way pigs dug in the mud prefigured her penchant as an adult pianist to champion overlooked repertory, including works by Turina, Busoni, Moszkowski and even the forgotten piano pieces of the operetta composer Rudolf Friml.
She accompanied endearing stories of her childhood with elegant performances of Haydn and Mozart. Once, visiting a museum with her mother, Buechner was enthralled by a Rubens painting of a beautiful young noblewoman. “I’m going to look like her,” she told her mother, who promptly dragged her to an arms and armor exhibition.
Buechner was unsparing in her description of becoming the “punching bag” at her elementary school, abuse that became so extreme that she was sent to a Quaker school. There she fell in love for the first time; Buechner said she wonders whether she was actually in love with this splendid young woman or she secretly wanted to be her.
Music and piano became Buechner’s outlet — where she could be what she called her “true self.” As if to demonstrate, at the recital on Saturday she gave an exciting account of the teeming (and very difficult) first movement of Chopin’s Third Sonata. After tossing off the final chords, she proudly shouted: “I played that at my Juilliard audition! I was 16!”
Indeed, Buechner had early success after success, including winning top prizes at major competitions and extensive tours. All the while, though, she struggled with her gender identity. On Saturday she shared stories of developing ulcers and contemplating suicide, and had the audience grimly laughing at her accounts of sessions with a series of hopeless psychiatrists.
“Therapists are like piano teachers,” she said. “There are lots of them, and they are mostly bad.”
Finally, in the late 1990s, Buechner began her transition to her true self, which included a botched surgery in Bangkok that later had to be corrected. In the process she lost friends, family, her manager and concert dates; her letters seeking teaching jobs were not even answered.
Eventually she found her way to a new, more welcoming life teaching at the University of British Columbia near Vancouver. From that point on, slowly and steadily, her international career was reborn. Today she teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia; the text for “Of Pigs and Pianos” comes from an autobiography she has written and hopes to have published. She ended the program with a melting rendition of a wistful Scarlatti sonata, which conveyed the place of satisfaction and peace at which she has arrived.
In the evening, at the Y, speaking to the audience, Tao, 27, said that during the hard, lonely months of the pandemic, improvisation had become increasingly crucial to him, allowing him an immediate “response to an environment” — it “kept me in my life.”
His recitals in recent years have been his own brand of Lisztian statements, like “American Rage,” a program (and a 2019 recording) of flinty works by Rzewski, Julia Wolfe and Copland, which Tao assembled, as a son of immigrant parents, to protest the hostility toward immigration and outsiders that was roiling America. Tao, who is gay, has pointedly played Copland’s steely piano works to reclaim this “gay, Commie Jew,” as he described Copland in an interview, from the perception that his music is solely about nostalgic Americana.
He opened his program on Saturday by seguing from his own mercurial, rippling improvisation into Adams’s kaleidoscopic “China Gates.” An impish Eckardt piece led into a reflective Bach chorale prelude. Then another restless Tao improvisation set up a superb performance of Schumann’s “Kinderszenen,” followed, after intermission, by Fred Hersch’s “Pastorale” in homage to Schumann and Tao’s pummeling, thrilling “Keyed In.” A stirring and sensitive account of Beethoven’s late Sonata No. 31 ended the recital magnificently.
As an encore, in honor of another composer Tao reveres, he played his own arrangement of “Sunday” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” Of all the tributes Sondheim has garnered since his death, none has moved me more.