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Friday, November 09, 2007

Sufjan Stevens's The BQE

In one of the best pop concerts I’ve ever been to, last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Sufjan Stevens offered the premiere of a new instrumental work for chamber orchestra (accompanying a triptych-screen film he co-directed), followed by a smashing second act – a dozen or so of his own songs accompanied by his own band plus the same 30-piece orchestra. The sheer sonic energy, in a beautiful mix, was simply gorgeous.

I’ll have to hear the new orchestral work, The BQE, again before I can really assess its value in relation to Stevens’s more familiar work but it was an entertaining and skillfully arranged score comparable to Philip Glass’s work for Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanasqatsi. The film itself was a mixed bag, and I sometimes found that it and the music were mutual distractions, rather than enhancing each other.

But in the second half, The BQE begins to resemble Koyaanasqatsi visually as well, as the three screens interact with each other to show zooming traffic light-patterns shot at night, and here the music works with the visuals rather than competing with it. The whole concept, an ironically beautiful tribute to a very ugly piece of urban construction, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, borders on the precious and the whimsical, which is how non-fans have often described his songs. This quality is intensified by the Warholian addition of five dancers with hula-hoops, performing downstage in front of the orchestra and below the movie screen. But half-silly or no, the whole thing was incredibly enjoyable and I certainly hope the score is released on a CD before too long.

Possibly a good accompaniment to The BQE on that CD would be the highlight of the show’s second act, Sufjan’s brilliant and beautiful 10-minute song “Majesty Snowbird,” introduced during his last concert tour but not yet available as a recording. It’s an extraordinary work, the culmination of the style developed over the course of the albums Seven Swans, Greetings from Michigan, and Illinois, as well as some of the ambitious new cuts included in his Songs for Christmas boxed set.

Like many other audience members, I enjoyed The BQE – but I was downright deliriously happy during the hour or so of songs that closed the evening. The smashing arrangements took these very lovely songs and made them sometimes overwhelmingly powerful. A couple of the more familiar ones, “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” have now been performed as definitively as they ever will be, and they possibly ought to be temporarily retired from the Sufjan concert repertoire to make room for other songs from the considerable inventory on the albums. Not that they weren’t beautiful – they were quite stunning, as were “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and “Seven Swans” and “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” and “Chicago,” and all the rest. Even a nonsensical tall tale monologue about summer camp was captivating – and led into “Predatory Wasp,” my own favorite of Sufjan’s patented mix of the cute, the mysterious, the eerie, and the heartbreaking.

This gifted musician continues to share magnificent work with us. With mixed feelings, because I enjoy being part of a medium-sized “cult” that appreciates his work, I hope he finds the big audience he deserves very soon. It seems inevitable, if he keeps doing unbelievably fine shows like this one.

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