Sufjan Stevens demonstrated tremendous technical proficiency and ambition in his latest performance — and his new “cinematic suite” simply made a lot of listeners very happy. The ultra-hip Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned Stevens’ fundamentally friendly work “The BQE,” an audiovisual treat performed by a 31-piece chamber orchestra and festooned with clever video, eye-watering costumes on its Hula-Hooping dancers and disco balls. After the roughly 30-minute journey (video explained that the song was moving from Queens to Brooklyn), Stevens stuck around the hall to play some of his best songs with occasional orchestral accompaniment.
It took 90 minutes for somebody to shout out a song request in the Howard Gilman Opera House, and it was clearly so embarrassing, it happened only once. Few indie pop singers would feel so at home in BAM’s sitting-room-only venue, but Stevens made a clear point with the moshless concert hall and the complex opening instrumental piece. See? He seemed to say. You’re sitting quietly listening to an instrumental suite named after a really boring road (the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), and you’re still having a good time.
“The BQE” started slowly, with the orchestra performing in silhouette behind two separate scrims. At the top of the outer scrim, a three-part video screen (“B,” “Q,” “E,” it said at first) showed images of Queens — housetops and streets and inflatable gorillas — under a sweet, goofily epic score. The images changed as the song sped along the expressway, eventually aided by Hula-Hoop virtuosos in bright yellow tops, white short shorts and fuzzy orange legwarmers.
There were touches of calypso in one lane of “The BQE” and what sounded like funhouse Tchaikovsky in another; the whole ride got to Coney Island just in time to watch time-lapse fireworks under what sounded for all the world like the triumphant climax of an early Walt Disney movie.
Stevens is a longform writer at heart; his “Michigan” and “Illinois” albums both have an internal intricacy that has nothing to do with modern singles-driven rock. Initially, he had spread the word that the two records were part of a full, 50-state cycle.
Those plans may have fallen by the wayside, but Stevens’ tender concern for subjects like ugly roads, Midwestern geography and serial murderers still distinguished him from the folk-rock pack during the concert’s second segment (“Sufjan Plays the Hits”).
Opening with the gentle falsettos of “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and closing with “Chicago,” Stevens betrayed a suspiciously deft understanding of hook-driven songwriting for someone who says that rock is dead.
Highlighted by the frank, unsentimental trumpets of “Casimir Pulaski Day” and the trembling acoustic ballad “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” the traditional set held together much in the way the first half had, while also serving to remind us what “The BQE” had been missing: lyrics.
Stevens’ musicianship is impeccable, but something unique to the writer-performer happens when the upbeat banjos on “Casimir Pulaski Day” are paired with poetry about the song’s subject dying of cancer despite the narrator’s prayers. “He takes and He takes and He takes,” go the words. But like the joyful ode to the traffic-bearing blight on New York’s landscape, Stevens somehow always sounds like he understands.