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'More Than a Letter,' Picnic present queer voices this spring
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

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Internationally acclaimed and award-winning transgender pianist Sara Davis Buechner is more than happy to be a part of the Chicago Sinfonietta's upcoming concerts of "More Than a Letter: A Celebration of LGBTQ Artists." Buechner came aboard at the invitation of guest conductor Michael Morgan, who is music director of the Oakland Symphony and a former assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. ( The group Allegrezza Singers and Curie High School organization Musicality, which has been on the TV show America's Got Talent, will also be in "More Than a Letter." )

For More Than a Letter, Morgan programmed theatrical overtures by late LGBTQ composers like Leonard Bernstein ( Candide, West Side Story ) and Samuel Barber ( School for Scandal ). There's also the Chicago premieres of works by living LGBTQ composers like Jennifer Higdon ( Peachtree Street ) and David Conte ( Elegy for Matthew, which was written to honor the murdered gay college student Matthew Shepard ).

"This is something in my own estimation that is long overdue in terms of classical music and how we market these concerts and how we get people to listen to great music," said Buechner, glad to also know that the Chicago Sinfonietta regularly reaches out to other diverse communities with annual holiday concerts scheduled around Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Day of the Dead.

"You're going to get people coming to the concert hall realizing that the music is for them, about them and connected to their lives," Buechner said. An as example, Buechner pointed out that gay San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas has previously "made great appeals to his LGBTQ audiences there and it's terrific."

In More Than a Letter, Buechner is set to perform the virtuosic piano solo in Rachmaninoff's popular Variations on a Theme by Paganini. It was composed not long before Rachmaninoff's death in 1943, and Buechner calls it an extremely emotional piece.

"It has all the flamboyance and carelessness of youth, but Rachmaninoff turns it upside down and changes the key in the 18th variation and it becomes the most beautiful, beatific salute to the love of life possible," Buechner said. "It's a great meditative reflection."

Buechner also said the piece is featured in the 1991 Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film thriller Dead Again. But that's nothing new for Rachmaninoff, who has strong pop cultural recognition since his famed third and second piano concertos respectively appear throughout the movies Shine ( 1996 ) and Brief Encounter ( 1945 ). Rather than looking down on this fact, Buechner said the films help classical music to reach wider audiences, including her own personal exposure to Rachmaninoff.

"My parents were not classical musicians, but when my brother and I were very small, they made sure that good music like that was played in the house," Buechner said. "They figured that was music that would help bring us to a higher station in life than they had reached, and they were very, very right about that."

U.S. concert work started drying up for Buechner after her gender reassignment surgery in 2003 ( something she wrote about in a 2013 op-ed piece for The New York Times ). Yet Buechner found herself very welcome in Canada with more performances there and a teaching position at the University of British Columbia. Buechner ironically laughed about her poor political timing, since she recently moved back to the U.S. to accept an assistant professorship position with Temple University in Philadelphia.

"Right after the election, some of my lovely colleagues at Temple took me aside in the hallway to say, 'Oh my god! I'm so sorry that you've come out of Canada.' But no, I think it is perfect timing because my country needs me," Buechner said. "I'm not sure if we have so much forward progress actually to make. In the time I was living in Canada, ( the U.S. ) changed so much and so much social progress was made for gays and lesbians in terms of marriage and so forth. Just social awareness of people as people, which is the most important progress we can make and continue to make. So coming back to the States, I find my career is expanding in many ways that I wouldn't have imagined."

The Chicago Sinfonietta concerts of More Than a Letter: A Celebration of LGBTQ Artists and Classical Music are at two locations: first at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville ( $48-$60 ), then at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 27, at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. ( $18-$99 ). There is special $10 student pricing at both venues. Call 312-248-1554 or visit .

A queer 'Picnic'

Will Davis, the new transgender artistic director of American Theater Company, is well aware that many eyebrows were raised at his unconventional casting for Picnic, a 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by the late gay playwright William Inge.

For example, the real-life romantic couple of 500 Clown veteran Molly Brennan and self-described "gender warrior" Malic White are respectively cast as the drifter Hal and the ingénue Madge—roles famously played in the 1955 film version of Picnic by William Holden and Kim Novak.

"Picnic has always really struck a deep chord with me," Davis said in an interview before preview performances began last week. "It's a play about a group of people who are yearning for a personal freedom that they will not allow themselves to have and also the community will not allow themselves to have."

Davis also reflected on the times that an extremely closeted ( and eventually suicidal ) Inge lived in during the 20th century. Davis said Inge often posited through his characters what tragic things might happen if they actually pursed their inner desires.

"I feel like [Inge] is both trying to explore his fantasy, and also writing this cautionary tale that keeps him in the closet," Davis said. "I very purposefully wanted to cast a group of queer-identified people who have that lived experience and put them onstage in this mid-century classic that is often not inhabited by people who identify that way and just pull to the surface all of these themes that really are speaking so loudly to me in Picnic but I've never seen—these themes about internalized homophobia, longing for something you're certain you can't have and how you're afraid of your own longing."

Picnic continues through Sunday, April 23, at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20-$38; call 773-409-4125 or visit .

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