Thomas premiere celebrates the joy of sax with Steven Banks, Sejong Soloists

Sat May 18, 2024 at 1:26 pm
Steven Banks performed the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’s Haemosu’s Celestial Chariot Ride: Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra Friday night with the Sejong Soloists at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

A flying saxophone ushered in the anniversary celebration of the Sejong Soloists Friday night in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, as a world premiere by Augusta Read Thomas shared the bill with familiar classics.

Thomas’s Haemosu’s Celestial Chariot Ride: Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra took listeners on a flight of fancy inspired by Korean mythology and poetry. Alternating between soprano and alto sax, soloist Steven Banks pierced the air and shook the floor with robust tone as conductor Hannah von Wiehler evoked imagery of nature and love in the percussion-rich orchestra.

Fluent, conductorless performances of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings flanked the new concerto.

Founded in 1994 by the violin pedagogue Hyo Kang, Sejong Soloists is observing its 30th anniversary with a mini-festival titled “Here and Now,” comprising two concerts and a screening of a documentary film about the composer Earl Kim.

The chamber orchestra, part of whose mission is the nurturing of young talent, points with pride to its alumni in prominent musical posts, including the concertmasters of both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. (These and two other concertmasters will participate in the festival’s second concert on Wednesday.)

On Friday, standing behind the small ensemble of woodwinds, percussion and strings, saxophonist Banks summoned listeners to Thomas’s work with a vibrant solo cadenza before an orchestral note was heard. Chiming percussion chords proclaimed the entrance of Haemosu, the sun god, driving his Chariot of Five Dragons across the sky and looking benignly on the strivings of humans below, as depicted in the six Korean sijo, or lyric poems, that inspired the concerto’s six movements.

The god’s trip being continuous, the half-hour piece was played without breaks between movements. Nature imagery of sparkling water drops and wheeling seagulls animated “Bright Jewels” and “I Will Write a Poem, Too,” the former with jerky, syncopated lines and the latter with the soprano sax soaring over skittering percussion and woodwind chirps.

In the long, overlapping notes of “Hold Back the Setting Sun” one could hear the parting lovers trying to stop time. In “Temple Bells,” the playful tinkle of green jade chimes entered the poet’s dreams via excited, staccato sax phrases. “A Crane Dances” brought an animated dialogue of angular phrases punctuated by pauses and a burst of fortissimo tom-toms.

In “Blue Sky,” the long closing movement, the poet’s gaze at the high, vast, empty sky inspired almost tempoless music, with the soprano sax floating into the stratosphere over slowly shifting orchestral timbres. Soloist Banks’s breath control proved as impressive as his digital virtuosity had been in earlier movements, and conductor von Wiehler led the ensemble to a richly colored and sustained performance.

During the musicians’ well-earned bows, composer Thomas came onstage to a crescendo of applause for her vivid new piece.

Another point of pride for this group is its well-coordinated performances without a conductor. However, having just heard the results von Wiehler was able to achieve in the Thomas performance, one wondered if Tchaikovsky’s Serenade might also have benefited from a guiding hand, both to hold its rhythms steady and to bring out its full scope of romantic expression—in short, to turn an adequate reading into something memorable.

Bach’s concerto, on the other hand, hummed along quite nicely in the outer movements and drooped elegantly in the mournful Andante, with a gentle lead from Paolo Bordignon’s harpsichord. Violin soloist Stephen Kim dazzled with scales and fiery tremolo, and the sensuous, well-matched tones of flutists Sooyun Kim and Yoobin Son were a pleasure to hear.

Here and Now Festival continues with Sejong Soloists and soprano Juliana Zara, violinists Frank Hwang, David Chan, Andrew Wan and Daniel Cho, and conductor Earl Lee in works by Mendelsssohn, Unsuk Chin (U.S. premiere) and Texu Kim (world premiere), 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Zankel Hall in Carnegie Hall.

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