What do you get when you pair Antony and the Johnsons with the Brooklyn Philharmonic? A license to cover Beyonce, apparently.
Midway through his stirring 75-minute concert, Antony, who fronted the orchestral unit as part of a sold out, special concert series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday night, slowly waded into the Beyonce's Grammy smash, "Crazy in Love." Stripped of its brassy introduction, the pop trifle was barely recognizable in its new, minor key — kissed by a full string section and Antony's eerie vibrato. But, by the time the chorus kicked in, here all tentative and haunting, it was difficult to consider the song in its original treatment. "Your love's got me lookin' so crazy right now," Hegarty intoned. And he meant it.
The rest of the evening was equally inspired. Already an accomplished, ambitious composer, Antony Hegarty mines suffering and searching to produce songs about transcendence — literally about transcending the physical body — which compliment his fluttering, falsetto singing. His is music that is utterly unguarded. And with new, expanded arrangements courtesy of composer Nico Muhly, Hegarty's older material was awoken with the vigor that only a full orchestra can supply. Already emotionally firm, songs like "Cripple and the Starfish" brimmed with intensity under a simmering arrangement.
Much of the evening was devoted to new material. Hegarty is in the studio working on the follow-up to 2005's I Am a Bird Now. And his new songs sounded promising, in the same minor-key vein as his entire oeuvre but no less enticing.
With musicians like Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Justin Bond (of Kiki and Herb) in the audience, Antony led with quiet authority, hardly addressing the audience until he graciously bowed at the end of the formal show. Dressed in loose white clothing — that almost resembled a straitjacket — Hegarty shivered and shied away from the spotlight, singing the evening's first song entirely in darkness. But the low-key lighting and bare stage put the emphasis — and drama — squarely where it belonged: on his story-songs and his expert orchestral backing.
While Antony and the Johnsons is always impressive live, Hegarty's music truly stood up to the grandiose arrangements and ornate venue, and that's not always the case when rock and rollers flirt with symphonic styling. Some of the credit belongs to the Philharmonic's new director, Michael Christie, and his clever vision to unite young innovators and his orchestral outlet. Either way, going to the symphony has never felt as vital.