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Dover Quartet
Steven Banks, saxophone

Friday July 21, 2023 at 8:00pm

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Friday July 21, 2023 at 8:00pm

Due to inclement weather, this performance will take place under the tent in the Venetian Theater.

The Dover Quartet returns to Caramoor with charismatic classical saxophonist, composer, and 2022 Avery Fisher Career Grant winner Steven Banks. In addition to Banks’ recent quintet, the program includes string quartets by Haydn, known as the “Father” of the form, William Grant Still, one of the foremost African American composers of the 20th century, and Dvořák, noted for employing the idioms of the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia in his works.

7:00pm / Join us for a conversation with Steven Banks.

Summer Season Shuttle / Take the FREE shuttle from Metro North’s Katonah train station to and from Caramoor! The shuttle runs before and after every summer afternoon and evening concert. No need to RSVP to get on the shuttle, it will be there when you arrive (in the parking lot side of the station). And if it’s not there, that means that it just left and will be back in 5-10 minutes!

“Banks has the potential to be one of the transformational artists of the 21st century.”
Seen and Heard International

Steven Banks, saxophone
Dover Quartet
Joel Link, violin
Bryan Lee, violin
Hezekiah Leung, viola
Camden Shaw, cello

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in E-flat Major, H.III: 38 (“The Joke”)
William Grant Still: Lyric String Quartette
Steven Banks: Cries, Signs, and Dreams
Antonín Dvořák: String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 51

About the Music

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in E-flat Major, H.III: 38 (“The Joke”)   

The term “scherzo,” Italian for “joke,” entered the musical lexicon in the early 1600s as a lighthearted variant of the madrigal. It appeared sporadically in various instrumental and vocal genres over the next century and half, often in contexts which had little or nothing to do with humor. The 1781 publication of Haydn’s Opus 33 String Quartets — dubbed “gli scherzi” (“the jokes”) because he replaced the tradition minuet movement with scherzi in all six quartets —would revolutionize the role of the scherzo in large-scale instrumental forms. Beethoven’s zany scherzi would be unimaginable otherwise.  

This quartet’s scherzo is certainly on the boisterous side of things. Supposedly Haydn’s original fingerings for the melody of its trio suggest a slurring pub fiddler after a couple pints (a conceit far to gauche for a stately minuet). But that’s not why this quartet came to be called “The Joke.” Instead, the eponymous joke comes — spoiler alert — at the end of the finale. As the rondo inexorably tumbles to its main theme for the final time, the ensemble becomes suddenly indecisive, unsure of when to end. After a few tries and a brief detour into a quasi-operatic recitative, they finally, tentatively reach an agreement to stop. Kind of.  

It’s a pretty good joke. It may or may not have been the first false ending in the Western musical tradition, but it was a bold enough move to enter the musical lexicon as a witty way to end a song of whatever form. However, as Dover Quartet cellist Camden Shaw noted, it’s “harder to fool the audience nowadays than it would have been back then because people know the piece, they’ve heard it, and they know it’s coming. So it’s actually more of a challenge to play than it would have been when it was debuted.” But like any good joke well told, it can still land. 

William Grant Still: Lyric String Quartette 

Had William Grant Still had his way, this quartet wouldn’t still exist. He finished the piece in 1960 (possibly based on sketches from 1939-45) and dedicated it to his friend Joachim Chassman. However, after Chassman’s Hollywood String Quartet read the work, Still found it to be inadequate, so he discarded it. His daughter Judith gives a more colorful account, writing “My Father said there was something wrong with it, and he threw it in the wastebasket. My mother took it out and saved it, and I published it after fixing a mistake in the viola part. It was an immediate hit when played.” Her story elides just a bit of history here, since something like 40 years elapsed between the score being pulled out of the trash and its publication. Its first recording only appeared in 2002. 

As a result, we know next to nothing about the piece’s backstory. Catalogs of his work misstated its length as recently as 2000. Originally, the piece was called Musical Portraits of Three Friends: Impressions and each movement given an enigmatic title: “The Sympathetic One,” “The Quiet One,” “The Jovial One.” Judith suspects that the middle movement was about her mother, Verna Arvey, but nobody knows for sure. In its finished form, the movements bear more programmatic titles: “On a Plantation,” “In the Mountains of Peru,” “In a Pioneer Settlement.” In both cases he declares the middle movement to be based on an “Inca melody.” When and why he made those changes is a mystery, as is the relationship between the old titles and the new. 

What’s undeniable is how lush and evocative Still’s writing is. According to the Dover Quartet’s Shaw, the piece is “clearly written in a language. There are no lyrics, but in the style of the rhythms, you can tell that it’s written in American English specifically, and it would be really easy to match lyrics with it. There’s something very colloquial and approachable in that, and it feels very familiar.” It’s hard to imagine what Still could have found lacking. 

Steven Banks: Cries, Signs, and Dreams 

For Cries, Sighs, and Dreams, composer and saxophonist Steven Banks found inspiration in the history of the saxophone. When Adolph Sax first arrived in Paris in summer 1842, he invited composer Hector Berlioz to inspect a prototype of his new instrument. Berlioz was impressed, writing, “It cries, sighs, and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish its sound until it is only an echo of an echo of an echo—until its sound becomes crepuscular.” A few years later, he repeated his praise of the instrument, writing in Le Journal des débats, “I know of no other instrument that possesses this particular capacity to reach the outer limits of audible sound.” 

Written between late 2020 and early 2021 (an expansion and transformation of an earlier work for the same ensemble), the piece was born out of Banks’s experience of the isolation of pandemic lockdowns: teaching saxophone lessons on Zoom, the lack of performance opportunities, the end of a relationship. “I just felt completely lost,” he recalls. But gradually, he came to terms with his inner and outer chaos, accepting it, even if he wasn’t necessarily happy about it.  

This piece takes his pandemic experience and generalizes it to depict transitions more broadly. It is divided into three broad sections which roughly map onto the moods of the three words from the Berlioz quote in the title. “Cries” is full of discordant, tumultuous harmonies and sharper sounds in the strings. “Sighs” is more nebulous and oblique, drawing on the woozy harmonies of late Scriabin. And “Dreams” is like a saxophone aria. Interspersed between these sections are improvised passages where the saxophonist (here, the composer) creates a moaning sound that even more directly reflects these various emotional states. 

Antonín Dvořák: String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 51 

Johannes Brahms played a critical role in launching the 37-year-old Dvořák’s international career as a composer when he recommended Dvořák to his publisher Fritz Simrock in 1877. The two had come in contact through the Austrian State Stipendium, a grant designed to help struggling young composers. Dvořák, having left his job as principal violist of the Provisional Theatre orchestra in 1871 to focus on composition, certainly needed the help and received the grant three times in the 1870s. Simrock immediately published his Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances, both of which were huge hits, and suddenly Dvořák began selling out print runs of scores and receiving piles of commissions. As part of that bomblet, the Florentine Quartet commissioned this quartet at the end of 1878, requesting that it be written in a “Slavic” style. Dvořák was happy to oblige. 

For the Dover Quartet, the most striking thing about this piece is its “roundness.” “It’s very gentle and curved a lot of the time,” notes Camden Shaw. “Even in the first movement, which starts very gently, very roundly, the more dance themes that come are written to be very quiet most of the time. There are a few bombastic moments, but not nearly as many or as widespread than most of his music.”  

Shaw also draws our attention to the form of the second movement: the dumka (думка, or “thought” in Ukrainian). The style, a kind of melancholy Ukrainian folk ballad, was popularized in eastern Europe in the 1870s by Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. Dvořák loved the possibilities of the form, writing numerous dumky throughout his career. Here, he has the cello strum chords like a bandura as the first violin and viola trade poignant melodies. 

Dan Ruccia is a violist, improviser, graphic designer, and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. He received his PhD in Music Composition from Duke University. He currently works at the North Carolina Museum of Art and hosts a radio show on WPRB, Princeton, called “Tomorrow Is an Octopus.” 

About the Artists

Dover Quartet

Named one of the greatest string quartets of the last 100 years by BBC Music Magazine, the Grammy-nominated Dover Quartet has followed a “practically meteoric” (Strings Magazine) trajectory to become one of the most in-demand chamber ensembles in the world. In addition to its faculty role as the Penelope P. Watkins Ensemble in Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Dover Quartet holds residencies with the Kennedy Center, Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, Artosphere, and the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival. The group’s awards include a stunning sweep of all prizes at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, grand and first prizes at the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, and prizes at the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition. Its prestigious honors include the Avery Fisher Career Grant, Chamber Music America’s Cleveland Quartet Award, and Lincoln Center’s Hunt Family Award. 

The Dover Quartet’s 2022–23 season includes collaborations with Edgar Meyer, Joseph Conyers, and Haochen Zhang. The group tours Europe twice, including a return to London’s renowned Wigmore Hall and a debut performance in Copenhagen. The quartet recently premiered Steven Mackey’s theatrical-musical work Memoir, alongside arx duo and actor-narrator Natalie Christa. Other recent and upcoming artist collaborations include Emanuel Ax, Inon Barnaton, Ray Chen, the Escher String Quartet, Bridget Kibbey, Anthony McGill, the Pavel Haas Quartet, Roomful of Teeth, the late Peter Serkin, and Davóne Tines. In addition to two previous albums for the label, Cedille Records released the third volume of the Dover Quartet’s Beethoven Complete String Quartets recording in October 2022. The quartet’s recording of The Schumann Quartets for Azica Records was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2020. The Dover Quartet was formed in 2008 at the Curtis Institute of Music. In 2013-14, the Dover Quartet was the Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence at Caramoor. 

To learn more about the Dover Quartet, please visit their website.  

Steven Banks, saxophone

Winner of the prestigious 2022 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Steven Banks is an ambassador for the classical saxophone, establishing himself as both a compelling and charismatic soloist, dedicated to showcasing the vast capabilities of the instrument, as well as an advocate for expanding its repertoire. Steven is also the first saxophonist to capture First Prize at the Young Concert Artists Susan Wadsworth International Auditions (2019). He was also recently chosen to join WQXR’s 2022 Artist Propulsion Lab, a program designed to advance the careers of artists and support the future of classical music.  

He has recently appeared as concerto soloist under the direction of Peter Oundjian, first at the Colorado Music Festival in performances of works by Glazunov and Ibert, and later with the Colorado Symphony, performing John Adams’ Concerto. He also recently appeared with The Cleveland Orchestra in Philip Glass’ Façades with John Adams at the podium.  

Banks performs at universities, performing arts series, and festivals across the United States and abroad, and he is also an emerging composer. This season, he premieres an original composition for alto saxophone and string quartet in Carnegie Hall alongside the Borromeo String Quartet. He has also recently completed commissions for the Project 14 initiative at Yale University and the Northwestern University Saxophone Ensemble. 

An emerging composer, the music of Steven Banks showcases “a unique and ambitious blend of feelings and sounds” and portrays “a deep intimacy” and “a sense of vulnerability” (Cleveland Classical). Banks’ original composition for alto saxophone and string quartet titled Cries, Sighs, and Dreams premiered at Carnegie Hall alongside the Borromeo String Quartet and was performed again this past summer at the Aspen Music Festival and School. He has also recently completed commissions for the Project 14 initiative at Yale University and the Northwestern University Saxophone Ensemble.  

Banks is an advocate for diversity and inclusion in music education, performance, and newly commissioned works in the classical realm. He spoke at the TEDxNorthwesternU 2017 conference on how to create change in institutionalized prejudices against women and people of color and has written and given guest lectures on the history of black classical composers. 

Banks earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Saxophone Performance with a minor in Jazz Studies from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and a Master of Music degree from Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. He is an endorsing artist for Conn-Selmer instruments, D’Addario Woodwinds, lefreQue Sound Solutions, and Key Leaves. 

To learn more about Steven Banks, please visit his website.

This concert was made possible, in part, thanks to the generous support of The Amphion Foundation and The Maximilian E. and Marion O. Hoffman Foundation.

Health & Safety / We’re committed to maintaining the health and safety of our audience, artists, and staff, while ensuring that every visit to Caramoor is comfortable and enjoyable. Click here for more information and up-to-date health and safety policies.

Caramoor is proud to be a grantee of ArtsWestchester with funding made possible by Westchester County government with the support of County Executive George Latimer.
All concerts made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.