Steven Banks

Saxophonist. Educator. Inclusion Advocate.

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable"

- Ludwig van Beethoven

Still Taking It In

Some experiences go far beyond the boundaries of what words can express. In a world of news cycles and social media trends that turnover faster than ever, I think that it is important and valuable to respect the types of experiences that force you to sit down for a moment and reflect. For me, last night was undoubtedly one of those experiences. 

I had the immense pleasure of performing the New York premiere of Johannes Maria Staud's Stromab (Downstream) in the Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall with The Cleveland Orchestra. There's so much loaded into that statement that is meaningful to me, so I need to break it down a bit into the who, what, and where of the situation. It can be hard to geek out when the people around you have been having experiences like this for years and years, but I still feel like a kid on Christmas and I think it's worth relishing a bit.

The who...

 The Cleveland Orchestra is one of those iconic institutions of classical music that comes with such a rich legacy. I am someone that feels a deep connection to legacies and traditions from the past. I take a vast amount of inspiration from the fact the the musicians around me have worked and studied with many of the great minds of classical music...George Szell, Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein, the list would go on for far too long. Being a small part of that respected legacy means the world to me. Thinking about the fact that many of the wind players that I have always looked up to (David McGill, John Mack, Frank Cohen, etc.) left there mark on this orchestra is amazing to me. It was equally amazing to sit a few chairs down from Afendi Yusuf, recently appointed principal clarinet in the orchestra. He is still among the first black musicians to hold a principal chair in a major orchestra. Times are slowly changing, and I'm proud to in the room to see it happen.

Stromab is a piece that calls for soprano, alto, tenor, AND baritone saxophone. Last night, Joe Lulloff, legendary performer and teacher at Michigan State University, played soprano and alto saxophone, and I played tenor and baritone. Professor Lulloff taught my beloved teacher, Taimur Sullivan, who I started studying with as a high school student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. I have a great deal of respect for Professor Lulloff as a saxophonist and as a person. He always brings a magnetic energy and enthusiasm to whatever he does and is just generally one of the nicest people one could meet. He never hesitates to help those around him in any capacity and takes a genuine interest in the many people he comes into contact with everyday. I am honored to have shared the stage with him in any capacity, but this venue was a nice cherry-on-top.

I was also so glad to have my family in attendance at the concert. I'm glad that I have them as a support system in this bumpy career climb that comes with being a musician. Sometimes it can be hard to describe why I love music I do so much, but I think it is something that becomes more easily understood just by being in the room while it's happening. My mom even said she enjoyed listening to new music this time!! :) 

The what...

Not everyone likes "new music," and that is totally fine. That comes with pushing the boundaries in any aspect of life. There will be resistance. There are many times when I hear new pieces that are just not intriguing to me. However, as a saxophonist, the future of our instrument in the classical world heavily depends on the creation of new works, since we don't have those old masterworks by Mahler, Beethoven, and the like. Many people noticed that there weren't any saxophone solo moments in the piece from last night. In a way, I'm glad that there weren't. This means that Johannes Staud viewed the saxophone as a vital, integral part of the orchestral textures that he was trying to create. One of my many goals is to be a part of advancing the repertoire that includes saxophone in this integral way so that one day (even if it's hundreds of years down the road) orchestras may need to have a full-time saxophonist to play a new sort of "standard repertoire" by a more diverse and inclusive array of composers. Being a part of the birthing of this piece with this group feels like a step in the right direction.

The where...

Everyone knows a little something about the reputation of Carnegie Hall. However, I find great inspiration in the feeling of walking through the same halls that Mitsuko Uchida, Jacqueline de Pre, and so many others, that makes me want to continue to grow even more than I did before. I want to use their legacy as a catalyst to continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the music that I love. My respect for this craft and it's history continues to grow deeper every single day! January 23, 2018. A day I will never forget.