Well, one definite goal was reached at the Sufjan Stevens concert at BAM: we learned how to pronounce his name. It's Suf-e-yan, apparently. I've wanted to see him in concert for years, certainly since his brilliant album centered on the state of Illinois. But this was more than a concert. Stevens debuted his orchestral piece inspired by The BQE, the Bronx Queens Expressway. There was a full orchestra, filled with the youngest, best-looking musicians you'll ever see in a pit. Since the music of Stevens is already very grand and orchestral, a symphony hardly seemed like a stretch and it certainly wasn't a surprise to see the performance included multi-media. It began with the orchestra behind a scrim, backlit to create a shadowy, lurking effect. Three giant video screens above it played stills and video shot along the BQE. Then the scrim lifted and there were the musicians, soon joined by five performers at the front of the stage who began to hula hoop. Why not? They left eventually (to delighted applause), the music continued and then they returned in darkness with glow in the dark neon hula hoops and danced some more. A rock band -- especially a full drum kit -- added a color I've rarely heard with an orchestra, there was a "Rhapsody in Blue" flourish on the keyboards towards the finale and it ended grandly. Accessible and enjoyable, the piece was most impressive for me during the quiet, almost sad lyrical passages at the beginning, perhaps because I didn't know if Stevens had that in him. The rest was filled with strong melodic sequences, often building to a dischordant epic climax before giving way to another strong melody. Very accessible and enjoyable (hence the Gershwin nod). I have no idea how the piece will stand up to repeated listening and whether it has the shape and cohesiveness of a symphony, whether it works as a whole. But I can't wait to hear it again. The multi-media portion was fine, something to watch while the music played, but it was far from necessary. This was not a multi-media work, it was a symphony with some images tossed in for good measure. That's a compliment.
After strong applause, they took a short break and Stevens came out and performed an 80 minute set with his band and the full orchestra. I'd missed earlier concerts of his at Town Hall and I'd wondered how they went. I knew the songs were strong enough that he could come out with just a guitar and perform. But the music was so grand that I thought some synths might not quite fit the bill. I don't know if he's ever been able to perform with a full orchestra before but certainly it was a treat. Here too they tossed in video loops and other artworks to complement the songs -- I loved the grainy, shadowy footage during one song that showed crowds of people on a beach milling about and rushing towards a globe-like ball of light whenever it landed among them. And the songs were sensational. Stevens had a sense of humor but didn't try and undercut or downplay the pain or seriousness of many of his songs. After "John Wayne Gacy," a terribly beautiful and sad song inspired by the serial kiler, I wondered for a second if people would actually clap. It seemed almost inappropriate after the pain of the song, which ends with Stevens comparing himself to Gacy. But it's a great, great song and the audience whooped. Then Stevens said almost with embarrassment that sometimes writing and singing that song bothers him and that some of the lines creeped him out while he was singing. (I thought he said he skipped over some lines, but playing the original back again, it doesn't seem so.) He said he might just have to retire that number. Overall, there was a wry seriousness to him, funny but committed. A friend described the show as the greatest school project ever: he gave facts about the BQE, showed some slides, read a paper (this one a faux childlike story about he and his siblings selling "Toilet Paper Dolls, Collectors Edition" to make money) and performed some songs. I already knew Stevens was a special talent but seeing him spread his wings with an orchestral piece and finally perform live, enjoying his dry wit and the nervous tic he employs of clapping along whenever the audience applauds between songs, well, it just made me eager even more for his next CD, his next symphony, his first film score. I know I'll be listening to him for a long time to come and now I even know how to pronounce his name.