Car Wars:
A Review of Sufjan Stevens at BAM

by Tony Phillips

The curtain comes up on a squeal of Princely feedback that eventually gives way to a lush, Copelandesque score. There’s a Warholian triptych unspooling across the top of the stage, a film our tour guide for the evening, Sufjan Stevens, shot himself with cinematographer Reuben Kleiner, flashing groups of images ranging from cars to architecture to exit signs, and later, a dizzying night driving section smeared with colored lights, Coney Island honky tonk and even fireworks. But for now, the bottom half of the stage remains cloaked with a scrim obfuscating both Mr. Stevens and his 30-something strong orchestra hiding out behind it. If this was indeed the “cinematic suite” the title screens promised, it was shot with a camera obscura.

Was this also Mr. Stevens great rock and roll swindle? Would the comely singer remain hidden behind this scrim all evening? Did dipping his toe into the symphonic world necessarily mean retreating into a man behind the curtain mystery? And what the hell was he wearing? This Xanax-crunching moment mercifully came to an end during the suite’s first of seven movements. The scrim unfurled revealing Mr. Stevens in white jeans and running shoes at a glossy black Steinway. One could almost hear the collective sigh of an audience all wishing it were a piano stool at once.

It’s difficult to draw many parallels between the trash-strewn ruin of a highway being commemorated in this half-hour symphony, entitled The BQE, and the fresh-faced 32-year-old doing the commemorating, but that’s Sufjan Stevens all over. Fawning profiles of the Michigan native place him teetering on household name while also including the phonetic instructions SOOF-yan. His is a name on everyone’s lips, and by the way, here’s how you pronounce it.

If anything, this BAM Next Wave commission, which places Mr. Stevens in the high art company of Frank Wedekind, Isaac Julien and the Kronos Quartet — all clearly influences on Mr. Stevens’ art as well — also confirms Mr. Stevens status as Brooklyn’s latest favorite son. As if the adopted Brooklynite, who penned this swirling, romantic symphony, complete with neon clad go-go dancers with light up hula-hoops, dedicated to one of the borough’s filthiest by-ways needed confirmation.

And all those emo-bees, who sat patiently through the strange wordless opus spiked with boys in tank tops and girls in fuzzy orange legwarmers, were rewarded richly with a set after the intermission entitled Sufjan Plays The Hits. And he certainly did just that, blowing out songs like "Chicago," "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head" and "Casimir Pulaski Day" across the orchestra, piling on sonic heft to the point where lesser indie rock standards would have collapsed, but Mr. Stevens’ hits benefited greatly from the treatment. His patter was punctuated with oddball stories like the one from his childhood oboe camp, but when his songs — like his ode to the artistically homicidal John Wayne Gacy — began, Mr. Stevens killed again and again.