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Steven Banks's BSO Debut

Steven Banks sits against a dark gray backdrop surrounded by four saxophones of different sizes. He wears a cerulean blue suit with a white shirt and silver tie. He has short black hair that's faded on the sides and he wears round glasses. He looks off to the right of frame, smiling as if he's just laughed.
Chris Lee
IMG Artists
Saxophonist Steven Banks

Saturday, November 25, 2023

BSO Assistant Conductor Earl Lee leads Henri Tomasi’s sultry, atmospheric Saxophone Concerto with soloist Steven Banks in his BSO debut. The piece is bookended by César Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit, or "The Cursed Hunter," and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, both exploring the power of fate.

Earl Lee, conductor
Steven Banks, saxophone

César FRANCK Le Chasseur maudit
Henri TOMASI Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4

This concert is no longer available on demand.

In a conversation with WCRB's Brian McCreath, Steven Banks describes the qualities that make Tomasi's Saxophone Concerto unique among concertos for the instrument, as well as what it takes to cover the full range of saxophone repertoire, and Earl Lee talks about his experiences conducting Franck's Le Chasseur maudit and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. To listen, use the player above, and read the transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT (lightly edited for clarity):

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB, at Symphony Hall with BSO Assistant Conductor Earl Lee and saxophonist Steven Banks. It's so good to have both of you here. Thanks for a little of your time today.

Earl Lee Thank you for having us.

Steven Banks Happy to be here.

Brian McCreath I'm curious about your history together. Have you actually worked together as conductor and soloist in the past?

Steven Banks Yes, we have. We worked together once before on a piece that I was stealing from the oboe repertoire, the Mozart Oboe Concerto. We did it in Eugene, Oregon, of all places. And that was a lot of fun.

Brian McCreath Yeah, well, I'm a former trumpet player, so I'm very familiar with stealing repertoire. That's what we do. But not for this week. You're playing a concerto, Steven, that Henri Tomasi wrote for your instrument. And I just want to know, first, what's behind the choice of this concerto for this week with the Boston Symphony?

Steven Banks Well, the Boston Symphony is just such an amazing orchestra, obviously. And this piece I really wanted to do with a great orchestra like this because it has so many colors. Tomasi was such a great orchestrator, and I just couldn't even imagine how beautifully they would be able to do it. And just now in rehearsal, we were able to get things together quickly and make beautiful sounds, and so that was very exciting for me. And this will actually only be my second time doing this piece with orchestra. And to be able to do it with such an amazing group is so exciting.

Brian McCreath Well, I will admit that I'm not familiar comprehensively with the saxophone concerto repertoire, but what is it that the Tomasi gives you the chance to do as a soloist that maybe other concertos wouldn't have as much of?

Steven Banks Well, there's a lot of meaningful interplay between the saxophone and the orchestra. And of course, I'm sure people say that about every concerto. But I think in this piece it is especially because the orchestra is so large. And so you get moments where you're trying to blend with brass and there are moments where you're trying to blend with just the low cellos, like in the opening, and moments when you're responding to the first violins. And so there are all of these different opportunities to create all these different sounds. And so, for example, another concerto that people play a lot on saxophone is the Glazunov concerto. And that piece is only for saxophone and strings. And so you don't have that breadth of color, and the Ibert is another one where it's a small orchestra. So it's a pretty unique opportunity within the saxophone repertoire.

Brian McCreath Yeah, it really sounds like it. And Earl, this kind of gets at what your job is in this endeavor. Is it a challenge to balance or is it written well enough that it sort of takes care of itself?

Earl Lee What you just said is correct. I think it's written really well, that it really takes care of itself. I mean, there are only few moments that Steven really wants to play with certain color that we have to adjust, But there weren't moments that it was poorly orchestrated by any means that we had to bring something down. So I think it's a really beautifully orchestrated piece of music.

Brian McCreath Have you done music by Tomasi before?

Earl Lee First time.

Brian McCreath What do you find in this piece that surprises you and that even maybe relates to other works on the program?

Earl Lee It’s incredibly expressive. French music... A few years ago, I think it was about five or six years ago, I went to Toulouse and I studied with Tugan Sokhiev. He's a conductor coming later in our season, and funny enough, I studied Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony with him there. But we studied a lot of French music, and the orchestra in Toulouse, they perform, they recorded a lot of the French repertoire, including Tomasi and César Franck. And when I observe them playing – and it's actually similar to the Boston Symphony, who also plays incredible French music – it was not always about this fluffy, transparent sound. It was very expressive. And I talked to some musician in the orchestra about it and he actually said, “I don't know why people try to play so light. It's expressive. We're a passionate people.” And I feel that, and I hear that, in Tomasi as well as César Franck, of course.

Brian McCreath Steven, you mentioned coming to play this with the BSO as a real goal. But with the BSO comes Symphony Hall. And so I'm curious, now that you have played in Symphony Hall, what you feel like it does for a saxophone that you might not hear in other places.

Steven Banks Well, I have to say, I'm a little bit under the weather right now, and so my left ear is kind of stopped up, so I wasn't able to fully tell. But what I can say is that it feels like the hall is giving the saxophone sound a hug a little bit. It allows you to play even in the mezzo-fortes and fortes without getting to that point where it feels brash. But I think one thing about the saxophone in general is that it can blend in with the orchestra, but it has the ability to really soar out. And I'm excited in Symphony Hall to be able to send the sound to the back, because it is sort of a long haul in that way. And having been to performances here before, I think it's going to be exciting to try to reach the listeners all the way in the back, which I think the saxophone does well.

Brian McCreath And having sat in the hall while you were rehearsing, I think that what I heard is exactly what you're describing, that there are moments that you are within the texture of the orchestra, very beautifully so. And you hear that saxophone resonance kind of in the middle of the strings, and then you kind of come out of it on the top and you are soaring through some of these lines, which is really, really beautiful.

For those who don't sort of keep up with these things, saxophonists, if you're a professional saxophonist, you are in general playing the full range of instruments from high to low. And unlike almost any other instrument, really, I mean, as a trumpet player, I don't I don't play tuba and, you know, or even trombone. So how much of a recalibration do you need to do for alto saxophone this week when you might - I don't know what your schedule has been lately - but you might be doing the baritone saxophone with the quartet you play with, or tenor for another solo or something. How much recalibration and resetting is required for a saxophonist to take on a concerto like the Tomasi?

Steven Banks Yeah, well, I'm so glad you asked that question because I feel like people forget that the different saxophones are different instruments, literally different instruments, different sets of reeds. I often say it's sort of like playing the oboe. You know how people have to be very conscientious of the reeds and working on them all the time. But on four different instruments at a time, and so, I'll try not to go on too long, but there are few things with this. One is, yes, I just came from Korea and I was playing tenor saxophone mostly there, some alto as well, and then coming here to do alto, and next week I will be with my quartet playing baritone. And so part of the issue is that, when I'm playing somewhere, you can't be playing on all of them all the time, or else you would have to practice, you know, 13 hours a day because just the reed maintenance alone is very time consuming. So, you have to be very thoughtful with your reeds well far in advance so that they're broken in in a way that they can survive not being played on every day, which takes a lot of foresight in thought.

But also there are certain things that I do when I pick up each instrument that grounds me in the world of that one. So much like a brass player playing on the mouthpiece, we also play on the mouthpiece, and there are certain pitches that you're going for on the mouthpiece. So, on alto going for an A, and being able to play that without any, you know, keys changing anything. It's like, okay, this is where I need to be. And so I do a lot of exercises on the mouthpiece there. And then when I go to baritone, I'll do them there. And also trying to just keep a regular fundamental scale routine, things like that.

Brian McCreath Sure. With the schedule you've literally just described for these few weeks, you're almost living in three different time zones, sort of, or time periods because you're attending to each of these. And you must have to be just incredibly organized with your equipment, with your time, with your location, so that you can be at your best for any one of those performances.

Steven Banks Yeah. It's tough. I'm still learning. I'm still learning how to do it.

Brian McCreath Well, Steven, I have a great appreciation for your website, which is really extensive. There's all kinds of things to explore there. But among them is your own personal philosophy about music and art. And something really jumped out at me that I just wonder if you can expand on a little bit for us. You wrote, "Being a black man in today's American society can be paralyzing . . . The stage, in contrast, is a place where people want and expect you to be 100% expressive." So tell me more about the thoughts behind that, the road that took you to that kind of statement.

Steven Banks I think that in my daily life or whatever, however you want to say it, there are many times when you're second guessing in a certain environment. Should I be here? How do I interact in this space? I'm also, you know, this is kind of funny, but I'm also very tall. So whenever I'm in a space, especially in classical music, I'm very visible. You know, everything that I'm doing is very visible. But in society in general, I often feel very careful and like I'm trying to, for lack of a better word, not scare anyone, ever, not do anything that's to this or to that. And in music, I find it's not only in the U.S., just all over the world, which is really exciting. Once we're all playing, all of that goes away and we can all communicate with each other through the music, even if we don't speak the same language, even if we have none of the same experiences. And that is something that feels very safe to me because a lot of the cultural implications are or stereotypes or whatever that someone might bring, they sort of melt away for that precious moment of time in which we're just trying to do something together and be musical.

Brian McCreath Thank you. Thank you for talking about that. I appreciate that. Earl, let's just talk for just a second about the other two pieces on this program. I bet a lot of people have never heard César Franck's Le Chasseur maudit before. Is it a piece you knew before doing it this week? And where did it come from in your decision to put it on this program?

Earl Lee Yes. This is the piece that I actually debuted with the San Francisco Symphony, actually, a week before I performed with Steven in Oregon. I remember that very clearly. I didn't know this piece before that, so I got to know this piece then. And then it was interesting that, the more I studied the piece, that this piece has a very strong affiliation with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was often played by Charles Munch, and there was a very famous recording. I think there are several. I think there's a live concert recording, and a professional recorded one. But the live concert recording is the famous one, and that is the recording that people like to listen to when they're learning, in their learning process of this piece because it just sparks. It's unbelievable. I mean, recording quality is not so great because it's old, but there's nothing else like it. So, after my performance in San Francisco, I had this, it was the idea of possibly conducting it with the BSO was always in my head. And luckily it was, when I was discussing with artistic, I floated the idea and it was accepted, so I was really happy. I was really happy with it.

Brian McCreath Well, we owe you a lot then, because it actually hasn't been done here in quite a while. But you're right, it has this historic connection with the BSO, especially through Charles Munch. But I'm so glad that you brought it because it is a piece that just shows off everything the BSO does really well. I mean, they do everything really well, but this is something very special. What's it like to conduct these particular musicians with this piece?

Earl Lee Oh, overwhelming. I mean, every time I get to conduct them, it's mind blowing. They're kind of... I like cars, so I always compare orchestras to cars. And, you know, there are certain orchestras that have the feeling that you're driving something like a big S-Class Mercedes or something very luxurious. And then there are orchestras that respond like a Ferrari, but somehow the BSO has the quality of both. And they also read you, or all the conductors, like glass. They see right through. And even the smallest movements, they'll do it. So it's really fun, but at the same time, a little bit terrifying. But it's an experience. But César Franck, especially, its color, virtuosity, transparency, richness. It's all there. And they do it so beautifully.

Brian McCreath And the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. Do you even remember the first time you might have encountered this piece, either on a recording or in a concert?

Earl Lee Yeah, I remember clearly. I performed it and heard it for the first time my first year at the Curtis Institute of Music as a cellist. It was the very first concert cycle. I was 16, and there was with the conductor named Otto-Werner Mueller. He was an incredible teacher and a mentor for all of us. And I was nervous and playing that, clearly. We performed at the Academy of Music. It was before the Verizon Hall days.

Brian McCreath It must have had a tremendous impact.

Earl Lee Absolutely. Absolutely.

Brian McCreath Yeah. And you said you studied it with Tugan Sokhiev. What what did that open to you in this piece that maybe you hadn't really seen or considered before?

Earl Lee The emotional content, especially in the first movement, how the harmonic language kind of reflects the emotional stages of Tchaikovsky writing this piece. He was very detailed.

Brian McCreath He knew what he was doing.

Earl Lee Oh yeah.

Brian McCreath Earl Lee and Steven Banks, I'm so glad to hear you guys working together with this incredible group of musicians. And I really appreciate a little bit of your time today.

Earl Lee Thank you so much.

Steven Banks Thank you.