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Does Classical Music Have A Transgender Problem?

Pianist Sara Davis Buechner.
courtesy of the artist
Pianist Sara Davis Buechner.

Yesterday, pianist Sara Davis Buechner published on the New York Times website a brave and moving account of her experiences as a transgendered person. "As David Buechner, born in the northwest suburbs of Baltimore in 1959," she writes, "I became an internationally known concert pianist. But from the time I was a child, I understood that I was meant to be Sara."

As David, she won gold at the 1984 Gina Bachauer competition and bronze at the Tchaikovsky competition in 1986, and performed as a soloist with top-ranked ensembles including the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras.

What she goes on to say, however, is that after her gender reassignment surgery, her once-flourishing career stalled out — at least in the United States. Buechner's story has much larger ramifications than its impact within the classical music community, but her assertion that she was rendered unemployable in her home country is troubling, to say the least. She writes: "In the United States, once I came out as Sara, I couldn't get bookings with the top orchestras anymore, nor would any university employ me." At the same time, she continues, her career has bloomed in Canada and abroad, particularly in Asia. She adds:

"The success of my performing career in Canada has helped me rebuild a reputation back home. I've played twice now with the San Francisco Symphony, and also with the orchestras of Buffalo, Dayton, Seattle and others. I am confident I will once again play with the elite groups in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York, earning the same good reviews that David Buechner once did. A new generation of conductors, composers, chamber players and music executives has come of age, and they don't ignore my agent's calls as their older colleagues once did."

It's a thought-provoking piece, and particularly so when you ponder how, for generations now, openly lesbian and gay artists, presenters, academics, critics, managers, publicists, label employees and so many others have made homes for themselves within classical music. Societal progress has been a very hard-won battle — and movingly chronicled of late in Alex Ross' "Love on the March" piece in The New Yorker — but I can't fathom a classical music business in the 21st century in which gays would have to hide their identities for fear of professional recrimination. But what Buechner is saying is that progress on LGBT issues, at least in the American classical music community, still stops at the LGB part of that equation — and that's sobering.

(When you read Buechner's essay, make sure you get to the comments section, in which the former head of artist services for Yamaha has a great anecdote to share. The punchline: "Thank God, I thought you were going to Steinway!")

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.