I heard a recital by saxophonist Steven Banks on April 1, 2021 (it was first dropped online on March 10, 2021). This was Banks’s debut concert with the Young Concert Artists. He’s the first saxophone player ever to be on their roster in their 60-year history. The concert was called “Come As You Are.”
He opened the concert with a world premiere, “hear them” by Carlos Simon, a piece for tenor saxophone and piano, with Xak Bjerken at the piano. Simon introduced the piece and talked about the inspiration and his collaboration with Banks. Simon was inspired by the poem “hear them” by Nayyiray Waheed, a poem about communicating with your ancestors. The opening lines are:
if you cannot
ask the ancestors
The piece was rich and colorful, vibrant and strong, clearly written with the expressive abilities of the tenor saxophone in mind, which Banks played with elegance and muscle. Bjerken was a fantastic collaborator.
Next Banks played the Mozart oboe quartet with three members of the Zorá Quartet. I would credit those three people, but the program didn’t credit them, so what can I do? Banks played this piece on the soprano saxophone and sounded fantastic, he made it sound like that’s what Mozart had in mind all along. I have to admit that Mozart isn’t really my jam. Beautiful, but doesn’t really get my blood moving in a meaningful way. What Brecht called “culinary art.” It tastes good, but does it have any purpose apart from that? Of course that’s an important purpose on its own.
I can see a few reasons why Banks included this on the program - - for one thing, he plays it beautifully, but on another level, I imagine he wanted to show that he can play something apart from ink-is-still-wet brand new pieces, and that he as a saxophonist can play beloved pieces not typically played on the saxophone.
Along the same lines, an old body wearing new clothes, Banks and Bjerken played Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke,” originally written for clarinet and piano. Banks played it on an alto saxophone and to me, he played it beautifully, but it didn’t have the same feeling of rightness as the Mozart. The saxophone sounded more out of place in this piece. Bjerken, on the other hand, did his most beautiful playing in this piece, he had a great feeling for the style.
Next we had another world premiere, “A Sonata For When Time Stands Still,” written by Saad Haddad, Young Concert Artists’s composer-in-residence. Haddad introduced the piece and said he wanted to integrate elements of traditional Arab music into the Western sonata format. The piece opened with Banks playing a single note then adding a second note, an overtone. It was a spooky effect, it gave me chills. But that honking sound got a little old for me after a while and the repetitive patterns in the piano part didn’t help. The second movement was much more satisfying, it had a lively interplay between the two instruments and the musical ideas were interesting and novel. Best of all, the music seemed to have purpose and a destination. We had more honking in the final movement, but this time with a downcast mood (though it still didn’t sound good). Eventually the saxophone part got more active and Banks played with conviction and beauty. My overall impression of the piece: it sounded sort of amateur but the composer shows promise.
The final piece on the program was another world premiere, *Come As You Are,* written by Banks himself. Each movement was a rumination on an African-American spiritual. The four songs he chose (he said they were actually chosen by members of his family) were “My Lord, What a Mourning,” “Wade in the Water,” “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” and “I Still Have Joy.” All four movements included snippets of “Total Praise.” Most of the time I couldn’t hear the source music so distinctly - - to me the first movement sounded more like Brahms, which is never a bad thing! Banks’s playing was profoundly beautiful and I was especially impressed with his writing for the piano. I’d love to hear more from him, both as a composer and as a performer.