United States Young Concert Artists’s ‘Come As You Are’: Steven Banks (saxophone), Xak Bjerken (piano), Zorá Quartet. Streamed from Merkin Hall, New York, on the YCA’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, 10.3.2021. (RP)
Carlos Simon – hear them (world premiere)
Mozart – Oboe Quartet in F Major K.370
Robert Schumann – Fantasiestücke Op.73
Saad Haddad – A Sonata for When Time Stands Still (world premiere)
Steven Banks – Come As You Are (world premiere)
Of the many recitals that I have attended, a few have left indelible memories. Makoto Nakura’s electrifying New York debut recital in 1995 is one of them. He was the first marimbist to win the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. Another is now on that list, also courtesy of YCA: Steven Banks, the first saxophonist to win the prestigious competition. For his YCA debut recital, Banks premiered three new works, including one of his own, and gave stellar performances of pieces by Mozart and Schumann.
Banks is the baritone saxophonist with the award-winning Kenari Quartet and has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to being a performer, he is a composer, educator and advocate for diversity and inclusion in classical music. One senses that Banks has the potential to be one of the transformational musicians of the twenty-first century.
Carlos Simon’s hear them opened the concert. Drawing on a mix of styles including jazz, gospel and neo-romanticism, Simon composes music for large and small ensembles and film scores. He was named one of the recipients of the 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence honoring extraordinary classical Black and Latinx musicians. Recent commissions have come from the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, Washington National Opera and American Composers Orchestra, among others.
Simon has always felt a strong connection with his ancestral legacy, which is at the heart of hear them, inspired by a poem of the same name by Nayyirah Waheed, who has been described as ‘perhaps the most famous poet on Instagram’. In her short poem, Waheed writes of summoning ancestors who speak in whispers, as they know that they have been expunged and are afraid of disturbing the living by intruding on the present.
Simon and Banks began work on hear them in jam sessions, but the pandemic forced them to continue remotely. Their music begins and ends as a reverie with sweeping melodies for the baritone sax, spiced up by occasional earthy growls. Much of the dreamlike atmosphere is provided by the piano, which serves as a counterweight to the primeval cries of the ancestors from the saxophone. It is a strikingly beautiful piece of music, which imparts its emotional weight with a light, but extremely effective, touch.
Saad Haddad is YCA’s 2019-21 Composer in Residence. In his compositions, which span traditional genres as well as electroacoustic music, Haddad explores the disparate qualities of the Western classical and Middle Eastern musical traditions. Since the saxophone is not associated with Middle Eastern music, the limits of Haddad’s imagination were his only constraints in composing A Sonata for When Time Stands Still.
In the three-movement piece, Haddad combines an improvisation on the ney, the traditional flute of the Middle East, by Bassam Sabba (who died in Lebanon of complications from COVID-19 late last year), with the arpeggios from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. The result is a work for soprano sax and piano that is alternatively mysterious and exuberant. Particularly evocative is the third movement which begins with a dramatic piano introduction before evolving into a haunting, lyrical dialogue between the two instruments.
I have a decent general knowledge of Negro spirituals gained from school and church choirs, recitals and recordings, but I know next to nothing about gospel music. My idea of ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ was Ethel Waters at a Billy Graham crusade: Jennifer Holliday’s searing performance of it is mind-blowing. It’s one place to start. Better yet, listen to the Brooklyn Gospel Choir or the Broadway cast of The Color Purple sing ‘Total Praise’, whose strains Banks weaves through Come As You Are: the lyrics of ‘Total Praise’ provide the titles of the four movements. This will give you some idea of the power and majesty of the music that has filled Banks’s life and inspired him to compose this work.
Banks dedicated Come As You Are to his mother and three sisters, who chose a favorite spiritual or gospel song that he incorporated into each movement’s musical fabric: ‘My Lord, what a Morning’, ‘Wade in the Water’, ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ and ‘I Still Have Joy’. Banks wrote the piece for tenor sax, which was the instrument he played in his early years and that his church family would associate with him. It is glorious, full of hope and joy, and made all the more powerful by the playing of the man who composed it.
Banks’s collaborators were the excellent pianist Xak Bjerken, whose musicality and passion for music of any style was always evident, and the extraordinary Zorá Quartet, heard in the Mozart.
I can’t wait for live concerts to resume, but there are things that I will miss about this digital interlude, such as Saad Haddad’s pre-recorded program notes for A Sonata for When Time Stands Still. He set a standard that will be hard to beat with his ingenious use of visuals and animation, especially the clips of him dashing down the notes as Banks played them.
To watch Come as You Are on the YCA’s YouTube channel click here.