IN September 1998, David Buechner, then 39, a prominent classical pianist, came out as a transgender woman, explaining that from then on, she would live and perform as Sara Davis Buechner. The pianist had been accustomed to rave reviews (at 24, David, in his New York City concert debut, was called “an extraordinary young artist” by a New York Times critic). But the debut as Sara, reported in a Times magazine article, was not so well received, even by loved ones.
Elizabeth and Anthony Buechner, the parents, as well as Matthew, the older brother, all expressed their opposition. In a recent interview, Matthew Buechner, a professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas, said he had counseled David to remain a man publicly and cross-dress in private. “A lot of people live that kind of dichotomy,” Matthew said. “I saw the switch as something that would destroy a career. Classical audiences are very conservative.”
But Sara Buechner was determined to be. She said that from when she first took lessons at age 3, she knew she’d be a pianist, and not long after, realized she was meant to be a girl. (“On the playground, boys yelled ‘David’s a girl’ and I’d think, ‘You got that right.’ ”) She believed that bouts of heavy drinking and depression during her years as David stemmed from not being true to herself.
In the next years, Ms. Buechner largely disappeared from public view, though not by choice. David had done 50 concerts a year — performing with philharmonic orchestras in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and San Francisco — but as Sara, she couldn’t get bookings. “Apart from local gigs, from 1998 to 2003, I did three to five concerts a year,” she said. David taught as an adjunct professor at Manhattan School of Music and New York University, but as Sara, seeking a full-time professorship, “I applied 35 places and wouldn’t even get a response. Behind my back, I’d hear, ‘Is it safe to leave him in a room with undergrads?’ ”
She left Manhattan, where she got the wrong sort of attention (“In line at the bank, I hear, ‘You’re the guy living on the sixth floor having a sex change’ ”), and moved to the Bronx, where she was only Sara. She took a job teaching the piano to children at the Amadeus Conservatory in Chappaqua, N.Y. “A nice lady said, ‘Why teach here?’ I lied. I said, ‘I want to teach kids.’ I needed work.” She earned a third of what David had made 10 years earlier.
Sandra Elm, a talent manager, had warned that coming out would be costly. “And it was,” Ms. Elm said. “The offers dried up.” This was before colleges were creating dorms for transgender students, before gay and lesbian groups added the “T.” “The visibility of trans people was just beginning,” said Mara Keisling, 50, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, who herself came out as a woman in 1999.
It helped that Yamaha, Ms. Buechner’s piano sponsor, stuck by her and that Koch Classics continued to release her albums. “I recorded the works of Miklos Rozsa as David in ’97 and the CD was released in ’98 as Sara,” she recalled. Of her album of Rudolf Friml’s piano works, Anthony Tommasini wrote in The Times: “I can’t imagine this music played with more integrity and affection.”
She’d call to tell her mother stories about the children she taught. “It could have been sad, considering how successful she’d been,” said Sara’s mother, a retired lawyer. “But Sara always kept a funny spin on it.”
“Whatever my problems, it was a very rich period of my life,” Ms. Buechner said. “I felt it was a blessing to flush David Buechner down the toilet and still have my music.”
In August 2002, when Ms. Buechner was playing at a summer festival in a barn in Delhi, N.Y., she was approached by Carrie Feiner. They had been classmates at Juilliard. “I was in a piano class studying this incredibly technical piece,” Ms. Feiner recalled, “The professor said, ‘We’ll bring in Buechner to sight-read this concerto.’ Played it first time through! We were all so discouraged — we knew we weren’t musicians like that.”
Ms. Feiner was surprised to find the great Buechner in a barn in Delhi but didn’t say anything until months later, when Ms. Buechner was giving Ms. Feiner’s daughters piano lessons. “You must be so busy playing,” Ms. Feiner said.
“No,” Ms. Buechner said, “things aren’t going well.”
Ms. Feiner offered to try to get her some concerts, and Ms. Buechner, who’d been through several agents, was skeptical. “Carrie was a housewife with four kids in Scarsdale,” Ms. Buechner said. “I was snooty.”
But slowly, Ms. Feiner built up Ms. Buechner’s schedule. “Sara needed to play a lot, it didn’t matter where,” Ms. Feiner said. “I wanted people to hear this beautiful playing, and hopefully jump on the bandwagon.”
One recital Ms. Feiner lined up was in Hightstown, N.J., at the Peddie School. “She’d get me gigs in Newark,” Ms. Buechner said.
In 2002, Ms. Buechner learned that the University of British Columbia in Vancouver was looking for a piano professor. “I wasn’t just going to apply and be humiliated again,” she said. Instead, she called a former teacher and friend, William Aide, who was the director of keyboard studies at the University of Toronto and asked him to make a discreet inquiry.
Ms. Buechner was welcomed to apply. She had to perform a 45-minute recital, teach a master class and interview with faculty members.
When Terence Dawson, the keyboard coordinator at the University of British Columbia, was asked recently if being transgender came up during hiring deliberations, he said: “I’d like to say it didn’t, but it did, although it wasn’t an issue. There were more important things.” They judged her to be a top-flight pianist and gifted teacher with a collegial spirit. “She’s a very warm person, a joy to be with,” Mr. Dawson said. Ms. Buechner was hired in 2003 from over 100 candidates and received tenure in 2008.
Canada has a national gay marriage law, and in 2005, Ms. Buechner and her partner of a decade, a Japanese woman — they first dated when David was touring Japan and she was his interpreter — were wed before 125 family members and friends in Vancouver.
Ms. Feiner was right. The concerts got bigger, starting with the Montreal Chamber Orchestra in 2004, and including appearances with the Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, Vancouver, Victoria and CBC Radio orchestras. Ms. Buechner now does 60 concerts a year, more than David in his prime.
The reviews don’t mention “David Buechner” and it’s hard to tell how much people know or care any more. A 2007 rave in The Buffalo News began: “You can never tell by looking at a soloist what kind of performance you are in for. With her skirt and pumps, Buechner looked conservative. But her playing was anything but. She played with fire and sparkle.”
As Sara, she has been featured with the Buffalo, Oakland and Seattle philharmonics. But still not, she noted, with this country’s top-tier orchestras. “Now that it’s going in Canada, can we get it to trickle down to the U.S. and rebuild that career I lost?” she said. Even if not, she considers herself a lucky woman.
On Nov. 11, she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her New York City debut by playing in Merkin Concert Hall, still 10 blocks from Carnegie Hall, but a joyous night. The 440-seat hall was full; the audience gave her numerous standing ovations. Her parents traveled from Baltimore, her brother from Kansas. They’ve all long since accepted Sara, happy that she’s happy. Her mother said she was advised to take a firm stand against Sara by a prominent therapist so as not to encourage the switch, but now regrets it. “Sometimes you think you know more than your children, but you don’t,” she said.
Her daughter bears no grudge. “I’ve come to understand, they were afraid I’d lose my sustenance, my identity,” Ms. Buechner said. “If I changed as a person, I didn’t lose my good parts whatever they are — my devilish sense of humor, my rakish good looks. I don’t think I look 50.”
She envies her students, far more relaxed about these things than her generation was. She has one, Al, who’s transgender. “Al’s short and I’m tall,” said Ms. Buechner, who is 5-foot-9. “We’re quite a sight.” Al made the switch at 14, Ms. Buechner said, so much easier than waiting until midcareer.