Steven Banks & Xak Bjerken Duo – The Millbrook Independent

Xak Bjerken and Steven Banks

by Kevin T McEneaney

The Clarion Concert series by Eugenia Zukerman is back! At St. James Place in Great Barrington, saxophonist Steven Banks and pianist Xak Bjerken delivered a memorable concert that still resonates in my ears hours later. At 28, the handsome Banks is a formidable star in a new generation of superlative musicians. He performs with the award-winning Cleveland Orchestra and Kenari Quartet. Xak Bjerken has worked with György Kurtag, Sofia Gubaidulina, Steven Stucky, Stephen Hartke, Naxos released their recording with Jesse Jones last month. His work is presented on five different labels.

They opened with Sonata in E flat major, Op. 19 by Paul Creston (1906-1985). Creston was born Guiseppe Guttoveggio, son of a Sicilian immigrant; he significantly changed his name to Paul Creston. He studied choir and organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, but he learned the art of composition on his own by composing five symphonies. Noted for the deep emotional power of its work, Creston’s first sonata with its dense harmonies, lyrical digressions and lively rhythms presents a dialogue between saxophone and piano.

Between Steven’s pure tone and Xak’s pristine dexterity, a fierce energy turned into emotion. As the saxophone leads in the first movement (“With vigor”), there is a sudden piano solo that widens the musical lines as the saxophone stands silently as if to ring with “I get what you’re going”. The delicate lyricism of the second movement (“With Tranquility”) appeared like a welcome bucolic gaze on the rearview mirror of life. The third movement (“With gaiety”) certainly lived up to its poster with its vibrant rhythm that made you want to dance. This structure was, of course, Antonio Vivaldi’s old recipe for fast-slow-fast movements, an archetype that never dates, but unlike Vivaldi, Creston had a warm, inviting and harmonic texture. I’m not familiar with Creston’s work, but it’s the kind of concert lineup that offers excitement and exploration off the beaten track.

Sonata in C sharp minor for alto saxophone and piano by Fernande Decruck (1896-1954) was another unknown gem. French improvisation organist who toured the United States, she has written over forty works for saxophone, this composition being perhaps her most famous. Published in 1943, she arranged this work also for viola or orchestra. This composition was recorded by Quator Ellipsos and released earlier this year with the title Saxophone published by Nomadmusic in France.

The first forceful movement was tight with a jazzy edge; the second movement was dreamily impressionistic with the sensation of falling snowflakes; the third gracious for the gifts of life with a feeling of walking on air; then a concluding Nocturne that seemed to bring down the curtain, until it transformed into a Festive Rondel!

Looking back to 1894, Sonata in F minor, opus 120 for clarinet and piano by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was the penultimate chamber music piece composed by Brahms. Here played with the saxophone, there is a tender melancholy where the saxophone can more fully express the painful low register, although some of the transient sweetness of the clarinet is lost. The piano remains fiercely robust and outgoing. The lyrical opening of the first movement in three sections suddenly turns to epic elevation, then recedes into a soft coda; the fifth conclusion “Vivace” contains unexpected comic digressions, as if Brahms were laughing at himself for past mistakes. The piece is considered a cutting-edge masterpiece.

In this context, Banks competes with his own work, Come as you are (2021). The composition is based on the four favorite spiritualities of the women in her family: the mother and the three sisters. “Lift My Eyes” was based on “My Lord, what a morning”. “Times of the Storm” on “Wade in the Water”. “The force of my life” on “His eye is on the sparrow”. “Raise my hands” on “I still have joy”. Yes, at 28, Banks rivals Brahms’ latest masterpieces, but in an African-American vernacular he invented, it’s just wonderful to hear! You can hear this work on YouTube, but the real remains live …

And I want to add that Xak Bjerken’s fingers on the keys were dazzling and thrilling!

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