Saxophonist Steven Banks and the Sejong Soloists in a superb world premiere

United StatesUnited States Various, ‘Sejong Here & Now Festival’: Steven Banks (saxophone), Sejong Soloists / Hanna von Wiehler (conductor). Zankel Hall, New York, 17.5.2024. (DS)

Steven Banks (saxophone) and Sejong Soloists © Steve J. Sherman

J. S. Bach – Brandenburg Concert No.4 in G major
Augusta Read Thomas – Haemosu’s Celestial Chariot Ride: Concerto for Saxophone & Orchestra (world premiere)
Tchaikovsky – Serenade for Strings in C major

A saxophone solo may not be what one typically expects to hear sandwiched between a Bach Brandenburg Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. But what a lucky thing for the audience when it is Steven Banks performing a new work composed especially for him. In fact, composers should be lining up to write works for Banks, just as August Read Thomas has done with Haemosu’s Celestial Chariot Ride.

Banks plays saxophone in what I can only describe as the platonic ideal of this brass instrument’s soundscape – a heavenly musical experience. Banks has a riveting presence and blew me away with everything he brought to the stage: charismatic confidence, technical flawlessness, adventurous phrasing, unbelievably sweet tones and notes of deep musculature held with near infinite length. It seemed that he must have had an oxygen tank attached to him somewhere out of view.

Thomas’s concerto was commissioned by the Sejong Soloists and conducted by Hanna von Wiehler. It is based on Korean mythology with each of the six movements taking inspiration from Korean sijo poems on the topics of sun, jewels, bells, cranes dancing and the like. Thomas is one of my favorite American composers, and she invariably creates a piece that engages a listener of any musical level without jeopardizing the creative backbone of her composition. There is something indubitably American and democratic to her style that met well with Banks’s earnest approach to expressiveness.

The energy of the night was equally due to the Sejong Soloists – an apt name, indeed. All the players mesh with fantastically coordinated ensemble work and they do, in fact, play like one soloist. The Brandenburg Concerto No.4, led by Stephen Kim in the violin solo, was a winning performance in which their impressive tempi by no means sacrificed magnetic emotional content.

The evening ended with a sweeping Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky that was a reminder of the piece’s beauty. The viola section’s contribution was particularly noteworthy in the robust interpretation of this audience favorite.

It is the group’s keen ability to stick to their agreed-upon interpretation that makes Sejong Soloists so gratifying. They have a 100% buy in, and we hear it. They will take an audience to the finish line with satisfaction, and they carry their guest musicians along with just as much success.

Daniele Sahr

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