Last night, Sufjan Stevens performed at the plush Brooklyn Academy of Music. But when a venue feels compelled to post a sign that reads “Warning: Flashing Strobe Lights During Performance,” you know the show isn’t geared at rock fans. The singer-songwriter was unveiling his classically informed symphony, The BQE, which was commissioned by BAM’s Next Wave festival. Stevens’ thirty-minute opus was a tribute to (oddly enough) the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the crumbling eyesore of a highway that slices through the hearts of New York’s finest boroughs.
Stevens was backed by an orchestra as well as a regular rock band, which gave The BQE a swinging, pop-informed vibe. There was plenty of spectacle, too: a troupe of hula-hoopers in day-glo costumes twirled and twisted at the lip of the stage as dizzying video projections of cars on the highway flashed from behind. As for the actual music? Pretty brilliant. The seven-part opus could’ve been mistaken for an instrumental version of a Stevens tune like “Chicago,” but peppered with nods to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Ravel’s hypnotic “Bolero” and the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life.”
Fans who couldn’t get into The BQE were treated to a second set that was dubbed “Sufjan Plays The Hits.” From “Jacksonville” to “Chicago” to “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the songwriter’s standards were enlivened by the orchestra even moreso than his recorded versions, which feature pared-down string and horn sections. At the end of the set, Stevens thanked the crowd, saying, “We hope you got your money’s worth.” It was hard to disagree.