If you think jazz and marching-band musicians are the sole owners of the johnny-come-late instrument developed in the mid-1800s by Belgian Adolphe Sax, you’re not hearing enough saxophone music. In two of last weekend’s Chamber Music Northwest concerts, four guys with saxophones walked on stage in formal dress and set their classical music scores on the stands — and played like crazy.
The sax-only Kenari Quartet emerged the unexpected stars of the “La Musique de France” concert July 1 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall (and the night before at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium). Its members delighted and surprised the audience and further heated up the overheated hall. It was hot in there!
Showing off their familiarity and finesse with French composers (their debut CD on the Naxos label is French Saxophone Quartets), Kenari began with Pierre Max Dubois’ free-spirited Quatuor pour Saxophone, written in 1956. Lively and speedily paced, with echoes of jazz, its four movements lasted more than the 10 minutes noted on the program – I’d say 15. We would have liked 20!
An 8-minute romp of sax acrobatics, Andante et Scherzo, by southern French 20th-century composer Eugene Bozza, began with spicy harmonies and overlapping melodies and ended with some hurdy-gurdy fun. Kenari Quartet illustrated how agile those wind instruments in all sizes can be, while exposing curious music lovers to rarely performed classical sax music.
- Angela Allen, Oregon ArtsWatch, 2018
“Among the many distinguished soloists: alto saxophonist Steven Banks, whose troubadour song in ‘The Old Castle’ was as beautiful as it was mournful, trumpeter Michael Sachs, who set us off grandly on our gallery tour and later played an especially nattering Schmuÿle, and Richard Stout, whose mellifluous euphonium solo graced the trudging progress of Bydlo, the ox-cart.”
- Daniel Hathaway, Cleveland Classical, 2018 (In regard to a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition with The Cleveland Orchestra)
“In ‘The Old Castle’, alto saxophonist Steven Banks gave the troubadour’s song a glowing mahogany tone, while the whole wind section made splashes of bright color in ‘Tuileries’.”
- Mark Jordan, Seen and Heard International, 2018 (In regard to a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition with The Cleveland Orchestra)
“Saxophonists Bob Eason, Kyle Baldwin, Corey Dundee and Steven Banks paid tribute to contemporary composer/innovator Maslanka (who died last August) by offering selections (chosen by BW professor Dani Kuntz) to show how work by Bach and Maslanka merged. Moving smoothly from baroque to jazz to contemporary styles, the quartet added well-thought out improvisations in (as the program notes) ways “Bach probably would never [have] imagined.” Swiftly trading solo spots for duets and then moving back into quartet formation, the ensemble allowed each performer a well-deserved spotlight in a joyful exploration of complex responses to Bach.
While I’m not sure that there’s anything Bach could not have imagined if he’d had an incentive to, the concert was more than a tribute to the past — it was sheer musical delight to hear so many ways a single bass line (and the versatility of the sax) could be celebrated, especially in a piece originally designed for a harpsichord.”
- Cool Cleveland, 2018
“The Kenari were flat-out amazing. Kinetic, physical players, they came close to choreographing Maslanka’s music — especially when riffs were passed down through the ensemble from top to bottom and up again. Their instrumental mastery was impressive, their tone beautiful, their intonation faultless. Individual solos with Ryan provided a fine contrast to the ensemble pieces.”
- Cleveland Classical, 2018
“The Kenari Quartet is one of the best young ensembles to appear in several years. The playing is very professional, fusing exceptional balance, blend, clarity, and control with superb technique, outstanding teamwork, and skillfully nuanced phrasing.”
- American Record Guide, 2017
“The bottom line is this: There is a great deal to enjoy here. This is a young and quite talented saxophone quartet; the members had been together for just three years when they took to the studio. This is a first release of which they can be proud, and it plants them firmly in a field that many gifted quartets have cultivated.”
- Fanfare, 2017
“The Kenari Quartet managed to bring the house down. They played an encore too: Piazzolla’s Adiós Nonino. What struck me most was the great degree of maturity they already display as an ensemble, which comes through as a very natural expressive playing, with a good degree of virtuosic technique too, which one relates more commonly to the playing of a soloist. Here however, four instrumentalists manage to produce that effect, which is quite remarkable.”
- Oskar Espina-Ruiz, Treetops Chamber Music Society, 2013
The program included Berlioz’s Overture to “Benvenuto Cellini,” the Mendelssohn Symphony Number 5, “Reformation,” and — between them — Paul Creston’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, the performance of which by Steven Banks all but stole the show.
Young Banks — he’s just a sophomore in the Jacobs School of Music — proved a remarkably nimble saxophonist who not only played his instrument with pristine clarity and enviable precision but knew how to add emotional heat to his interpretation. He was given plenty of meaty substance by Creston, a composer who also wrote concertos for other instruments not often considered for prime solo assignments, among them the marimba, trombone and accordion.
The Concerto for Alto Saxophone, written in 1944, enabled Banks to exude plenty of energy in the first movement, labeled “Energetic,” and to show off in a demanding cadenza. In the second movement, marked “Meditative,” his music-making turned mellow and dreamy. And when the “Rhythmic” final movement came along, Banks let the fingers flutter and flash in bravura fashion. He dazzled, and those who came to listen cheered.
- Herald Times (Bloomington, IN), 2013
“We next were dazzled by the young and remarkably talented saxophonist Steven Banks. He is a native of Winston-Salem and is currently a high school senior at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He performed the first movement (marked "Energetic") of American composer Paul Creston's Alto Saxophone Concerto. After a brief orchestral introduction, the soloist took off like a rocket with a couple of ascending riffs that had more notes than you could count in the time they were played. His fingers flying on the keys and his embouchure firm on the mouthpiece, Banks played a breath-taking performance with only a few orchestral interludes to give him (and us) a chance to catch a breath. This young artist's future is wide open to him.”
- Classical Voice of North Carolina, 2011