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A Black composer's concerto about the Black experience will get its world premiere in Kansas City

Composer Billy Childs and saxophonist Steven Banks.
Raj Naik/Chris Lee
/
Courtesy of artists
Composer Billy Childs and saxophonist Steven Banks.

There aren't many saxophone concertos that exist, let alone one written for a Black musician, by a Black composer, and commissioned by a group of major orchestras. This month, saxophonist Steven Banks will perform the world premiere of Billy Childs' new saxophone concerto with the Kansas City Symphony.

This story was first published in Classical KC's "Take Note" newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox the first Wednesday of every month.

It's a rare treat to hear a saxophone concerto, and it's been quite a few years since the Kansas City Symphony has programmed one. This February, you'll not only have the chance to hear one, but a world premiere at that.

Saxophonist Steven Banks will make his Kansas City debut with a world premiere performance of Bill Childs' saxophone concerto. Guest conductor Ruth Reinhardt leads the orchestra.

The arc of the piece, which is co-commissioned by nine major American orchestras, follows “the trajectory of the Black experience from actually being in Africa before slave trade all the way to now, and going forward in a hopeful way,” Banks says.

Banks is a musician on the rise, a sought-after soloist and collaborator. He's the winner of the 2022 Avery Fisher Career Grant and in 2019 was the first saxophonist to win first prize at the Young Concert Artists Susan Wadsworth International Auditions.

“Steven Banks is a standout,” says Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony’s music director. “He is one of the most virtuosic and musical saxophonists you will ever hear.”

The Kansas City debut is the culmination of a three year process. Through Young Concert Artists, Banks reached out to Childs about creating a concerto for saxophone. An award-winning composer and performer, Childs has been described as “the most distinctly American composer since Aaron Copland,” drawing from classical idioms, minimalism, jazz, and avant garde techniques.

“Billy Childs is an amazing musician,” Stern says. “We talk a lot about bringing together various genres and fusing orchestral music and jazz into a seamless unity. Billy Childs does it effortlessly.”

His music is extremely listenable, says Banks. “He uses aspects of all of these different types of music, including jazz, to create his own very unique sound world.”

For the concerto, Childs takes inspiration from poets Nayyirah Waheed, Claude McKay, and Maya Angelou.

“I think when people come to hear the premiere, they aren’t going to know what to expect," Banks says. “I’ve certainly never played a concerto that had this wide of a musical scope. The first movement is very diatonic, almost sing-songy, and the second movement gets all the way up to a screaming multiphonic.”

Banks, who grew up with gospel music in church, studied both jazz and classical styles in college before devoting his career to classical performance.

“The spirit of the music, it’s in my bones,” says Banks.

There aren’t that many saxophone concertos out there, and most aren’t long enough for a typical orchestral program.

“One of the hurdles [for concert saxophonists] is that we don’t have a wide range of things to play,” Banks says. “To be able to have a substantial piece like this by a living composer that is approachable to the ear, but also full of drama and interest, I think will really be important for us.”

“This piece is the most important thing that I’ve done in my musician life," Banks continues. "Helping to bring this piece to life is absolutely the peak of my career so far."

It also helps fulfill Bank's mission to contribute to a more diverse and equitable classical music field, goals he outlined in his 2017 TEDxNorthwestern talk.

In the talk, he quotes Aaron Dworkin, founder of Sphinx Organization and Dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance: “In dealing with these issues of diversity, many times it’s not difficult to address them. They simply require that you think about them at all.’”

“Having a major concerto be commissioned by nine major American orchestras, by a Black composer, bringing in a Black soloist to play the saxophone,” says Banks, “that is the complete realization of everything I’m trying to do as a musician. I think it adds a lot to the future of music, the direction that we are going in.”

Over the next two years, Banks will perform the work all over the country. Co-commissioners include the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, Chautauqua Institute, National Symphony Orchestra, New World Symphony, and San Diego Symphony.

“For me it feels very surreal that it's about to happen, that it's about to exist in the world,” says Banks. “I’m really excited to bring this to Kansas City.”

Steven Banks performs Billy Childs’ Saxophone Concerto with the Kansas City Symphony February 10-12. Find out more at kcsymphony.org.

Updated: January 12, 2023 at 12:47 PM CST
Additional ensembles not included in the original publication are now listed at the bottom of the story.
Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.