Every musical theater actor in town is familiar with the sight of some of the pit musicians lugging multiple instruments into the theater. Especially if the “pit” isn’t really a pit but a concocted space in the wings or behind the stage where the cast and orchestra can get to know each other quite well.
Now look at the photo of the smiling musician featured in this article and tell me whether that’s a theater pit member, a jazz artist, or a classical musician. The answer is the last one, although I have no doubt that he could perform the other functions expertly too.
The larger point is that Steven Banks’ tremendous facility on all four varieties of the saxophone — the soprano and baritone saxophone as well as the more common alto sax and tenor sax — is matched by his incisive curiosity about expanding the classical field via his own compositions, collaborations, and verbal communication skills.
A lot of this is why a long-running New York/Washington collaborative classical organization known as Young Concert Artists, in conjunction with Washington Performing Arts, is featuring Banks in its current virtual concert offering. Banks’ performance on all four of his instruments along with pianist Xak Bjerken and members of the Zorá String Quartet debuted last weekend and offers an exceptional cornucopia of established and brand-new works.
For my money — well, this particular concert is free but you know what I mean — the standout works in the program are Banks’ own brand-new four-part composition called Come As You Are and a new read of a mid-19th-century work by Robert Schumann called Three Fantasy Pieces. Other people may just as well pick out two others as their favorites. But Come As You Are — which you have to admit is a great title for music streamed into people’s homes in a pandemic — also doubles as the theme of the concert.
Banks has an elaborate concept for Come As You Are. The concept combines a selection of four historical spirituals whose themes he’s reworked, a through-line of another spiritual that runs throughout the work, and a sense of attachment to four relatives — his mother and three sisters.
To simplify things on first hearing, my suggestion is to just absorb the entire piece, which begins right about at the one-hour mark of the concert and accompanying discussion, and then call up on YouTube three of the original spirituals sung by different generations of African American artists. Don’t worry about which spiritual was the original source for which of the four original pieces of Come As You Are. Here are those three:
- “My Lord, What a Morning,” sung by Marian Anderson
- “Wade in the Water,” sung by Cynthia Liggins Thomas
- “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” sung by Whitney Houston
Played by Banks on the tenor saxophone, the reworkings each recapture a more individualized mood that oscillate between classical, jazz, and American folk or spiritual forms. The fourth piece, inspired by the spiritual “I Still Have Joy,” may not be as fully realized and from time to time the piano part, performed by Xak Bjerken, starts to run out of gas. But the expert combining of classical and native-born American musical tropes, often resulting in quite a virtuoso turn on the tenor sax and piano, constitutes a major new composition that easily rewards a second hearing (during which you can more easily dive deeper into Banks’ notes and specific associations).
The other main highlight of the concert, Robert Schumann’s Three Fantasy Pieces (or Fantasiestücke in the original German) from the “Romantic” era of classical music, is an instrumental adaptation. Schumann originally wrote it in such a way that it could be performed on the clarinet, viola, or cello. He couldn’t have thought of it for the saxophone because, fascinatingly, it dates from 1842 — the very same decade in which the saxophone would be invented by Adolphe Sax, who got a patent for it in 1846.
Grabbing the alto saxophone for this piece, Banks easily makes you forget that there’s anything unusual or unnatural about a solo sax on the classical concert stage. Particularly in the third of the three fantasy pieces, listen for how the saxophone and piano parts wrap around each other, especially toward the end when Schumann indulged in a repeated personal habit of his of indicating schneller und schneller (“faster and faster”) at the end of some compositions.
A comparison with the other versions of the work is especially fascinating here. After watching Banks’ performance with Bjerken at the piano, a good one to check out is a cello-and-piano version from 1982 in Munich. See how cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich, famously two of the most fluent and virtuosic musicians of recent classical history, execute the race to the end between the two instruments, and choose which version you prefer — Banks’ on the alto sax or Maisky’s on the cello. (Both answers are right!)
Banks’ concert also includes one reach back to the 18th century, with the Oboe Quartet in F Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart accompanied by three members of the Zorá String Quartet. No, Banks doesn’t play the oboe, but that’s one of the advantages of being able to play four varieties of your own instrument. The soprano saxophone generally tracks the registers of the oboe, and there’s a certain relationship in the pungency of both instruments’ sound even if their physical mechanisms are different.
Even within Mozart’s enormous musical output in a lifetime spanning less than 36 years, the Oboe Quartet (classical-music sticklers can look it up as K. 370) is known as a particular masterpiece because it acts as a mini-concerto where Mozart had the good sense not to try to integrate the unlikely solo instrument into the string players’ chords but let it shine on its own. With “soprano saxophone” not exactly being an instrument you see featured a lot on classical chamber-music programs, it’s a real inspiration for Banks to champion this version of the piece.
Two other new pieces on the program by composers other than Banks himself present different sound-worlds to the listener. Perhaps the more notable one is composer Carlos Simon’s hear them — yes, all lower-case letters — because of Banks’ unusual capability on the baritone saxophone as a solo instrument. Simon’s sort of neo-bluesy composition has the soloist diving up and down on jazzy arpeggios across two and a half octaves, with Banks executing some very attractive (and surprisingly nonblatant for a saxophone) pedal tones on the bottom notes.
At the higher end, Simon gives Banks the freedom to almost neigh like a horse on the saxophone, although the accompanying short poem makes clear that the idea is really the notion of deceased ancestors straining to call out to the living to “hear them” and their stories (thus the name of the piece). The piano accompaniment here is especially effective, grounding the baritone saxophone’s clearly modernistic phrases in an almost Romantic bath of notes for a very interesting synthesis of historical musical styles.
Finally, a new three-movement piece called A Sonata for When Time Stands Still by composer Saad Haddad is inspired by two things: Composer Haddad’s interest in taking advantage of Banks’ capability on the soprano saxophone (which can be especially difficult to play) that he witnessed when Banks won the 2019 Young Concert Artists audition, and Haddad’s interest in incorporating his native Arabic music into a traditional Western music structure.
The piece is challenging for the listener, particularly because it incorporates an apparent trick where the soprano sax can generate two clashing notes at once. At least Haddad gives an effective verbal presentation in the virtual concert, noting how certain phrases that split into two notes are meant to evoke the idea of rustling winds or other natural phenomena. His claim that he adapted one effect from the phrases in Johann Sebastian Bach’s first cello suite is a stretch and not really convincing to this listener, but all attendees can make up their own minds.
A suggestion that would help in this process would be for Washington Performing Arts (and other prominent concert presenters) to drop the classical music world’s pompous habit of labeling every new work such as Simon’s and Haddad’s a “world premiere,” which lays far too much weight on what in the theater world would simply be called a tryout, and can come across to already diminishing classical audiences as a passive-aggressive demand that they like the music rather than freely make up their own minds.
Some concert presenters have privately told me that they have to use this terminology because of the demands of grants-making organizations. But my strong suspicion is that this terminology turns off at least as many potential concert attendees as it attracts, and I think a different approach is warranted in service of getting highly deserving new artists as Banks as big an audience as they can.
Saxophonist Steven Banks’ solo concert with pianist Xak Bjerken is available separately from the two sponsoring organizations. As part of Washington Performing Arts’ Home Delivery Plus season, it is available free through Thursday, March 11 at their concert link. At Young Concert Artists, free access begins on Thursday, March 11 at 7:30 and continues indefinitely at YCA’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.