Well, maybe not the future, but one possibility. This was Sufjan Stevens’s piece BQE at BAM last weekend, part of their Next Wave festival. Here was a top indie rock guy creating a multimedia piece, 30 minutes long, with the music written for orchestra (30 pieces or so, counting his band). And he most certainly can write for orchestra. This wasn’t the embarrassment we all too often get, when pop people venture into classical music.
Jon Pareles wrote a rave review in the New York Times, both of BQE and the show of Stevens’s songs that followed, also with the orchestra joining in. I wasn’t quite as excited as Jon was. For me there was a disconnect between the fancy stuff in the program book about the actual BQE — the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a grizzled highway in New York — which the piece claims to be about. It’s fun to read about how the highway was built, and how the man responsible (Robert Moses, a key figure, and not a very wholesome one, in the development of New York in past generations) built parks, but hated frivolous recreation, thus explaining the hula hoops in the piece, which juxtaposed a pleasure Moses surely hated with the road he built…well, sure. But did any of that come through in what I saw onstage? I’d have to say no, though the hula hoops were fun, and the verve of the BQE images on video was also fun. And the onstage orchestra was vividly part of the stage picture.
But then Einstein didn’t have all that much — visibly or audibly — to do with Einstein on the Beach, a classic of this kind of music-theater. And what mattered most to me was the orchestra. The players were said to be Stevens’s friends (or, more likely, a few of his friends and some of their friends), and that made a difference. They were completely into the show. Older, veteran orchestral players might not have been so excited. Anyone steeped in classical music could say that Stevens doesn’t write for orchestra the way a classical composer would, that the textures could have been more precise, that more could have been going on, in separate voices, at any one time. Older orchestra players might also be put off by Stevens’s blend of true and faux naiveté, not uncommon in indie rock, but not often found in high art.
That last point, though, only shows that Stevens isn’t aiming his stuff at older people, and the musical complaint I sketched above would be a misunderstanding, because most of all I thought the music was new, fresh, really original, comparable only to Stevens’s albums. You can hear an inadequate excerpt in a video of a radio broadcast, with an ensemble much smaller than the one at BAM, and playing that’s not all that good. Still, it might give you some idea of what’s going on, with one more caveat – -the excerpt sounds more like Philip Glass than the piece did as a whole. This is a serious piece of work, completely conceived for orchestra, and realized with a lot of color and skill.
And the piece sold out three performances in BAM’s opera house, capacity 2109, without any advertising. Yes, without any advertising. All BAM had to do was mention the piece in its first publicity for this year’s Next Wave, and word of mouth took care of the rest. The crowd was young, of course.
So why shouldn’t shows like this be part of the future of orchestras? So many people talk about reaching a young audience. Well, here’s one way to do it. Infallible, I’d say. Book Sufjan Stevens. But this won’t be easy, because Stevens is both shy, and serious. He worked, I’m told, for three weeks with his BAM ensemble. Orchestras might slot this show as something they could fly in, and present — profitably — with just one rehearsal, and Stevens, from everything I hear, wouldn’t stand for that. So maybe BQE wouldn’t be economical for orchestras. But as an investment in the future? Priceless.
And something else to think about.
Yes, this isn’t the kind of orchestral music normally heard on classical concerts, even when new works are on the program. But is that a problem? And who’s to say, once we open this door, that more pop musicians won’t write serious orchestral music, and — here’s the key point — get better at it, as they continue doing it? The classical music world doesn’t understand the culture outside it very well, especially the culture of younger people. Rather than look down our noses, saying, “Oh, it’s all right in its way, but it’s just not us,” we should understand that this is exactly the central point — it’s not like us — and open ourselves to what it is, taken on its own terms. Otherwise people like Stevens will move into classical territory outside the classical world, and leave us gasping alone, like beached whales.