Originally billed as a collaboration between three musicians but with no further information until fairly close to the performance itself, this classical pop concert was probably what most who turned up tonight at the Sydney Opera House would have expected. This is coming from three musicians that would most likely be near the top of a compiled list of pop musicians with classical music composition skills, fairly different from four minute structured verse-chorus-verse-type songs. (Although we are speaking of Sufjan Stevens here, so perhaps this is an exception).
As a huge fan of Sufjan Stevens and The National’s entire back catalogue, as well as many of the projects that Nico Muhly has been involved with (Antony and the Johnsons, Phillip Glass, Jonsi, Grizzly Bear), I was already predisposed to enjoy this mash-up of musical talent. The first part, a recital by the Orava String Quartet of Sydney, who were very young and visibly nervous (it was probably one of their first performances for an audience the size of the Opera House), unfortunately was not always coherent. Diacritical Marks, by Nico Muhly, clearly alluded a certain contemporary music pioneer, Steve Reich, in its variations on a theme, and rhythms, building and exploring the range and depths of sound. Needless to say, the dynamics were well emphasised by the string quartet, who were clearly on top of their game, at points the force of their playing severing the bow horsehairs mid-song. Sufjan Stevens’ part was an arrangement of three songs off Run Rabbit Run, which proved to be slightly more structured as a conventional pop piece by Sufjan Stevens’ standards. This was then followed by Bryce Dessner’s Aheym which was a more rough composition, and as described by Dessner, “metal arranged for string quartet”.
Following a short interval, the three musicians were ready to play Planetarium, with a backing ensemble comprised of 7 trombonists, the Orava String Quartet, as well as a drummer. This resembled, much more closely, what a pop collaboration between the three would sound like. With Bryce on his guitar, Nico at the keys, and Sufjan providing vocals, the audience was transported on a journey through space. A massive orb hanging from the centre of the stage had moving images projected into it, emulating the planets from the songs. Nico Muhly, was the most talkative on stage, at a point, joking that the most controversial part of the show, was performing Pluto, which was demoted to a stellar body.
The use of the vocoder could have been considered slightly excessive, despite keeping with the ‘space’ theme. I think he may have gotten carried away with it, after using it in the recording Age of Adz. The evening was filled with music that had the depth of Sufjan’s career, from the quieter and fragile Venus, written about love, (obviously!) to seven minute epics, including the fierce Mars, Saturn, and Earth, with Nico Muhly’s faultless work on the keyboards and the celeste, also multi-tasking with conducting hand gestures in the corner of my eye providing a signal that the band was building up. Dessner’s solo guitar work complimented the pieces well, bowing the guitar in Earth to great effect. As a whole, their performance came across as delicate and poignant in their interpretation of the planets. (even if some of them were no longer planets – as long as it makes for good music.)
PART 1 – STRING QUARTETS Performed by the Orava String Quartet
By Nico Muhly Diacritical Marks (in eight movements)
By Sufjan Stevens Run Rabbit Run
i. Year of the Boar
ii. Year of the Horse
iii. Year of Our Lord
By Bryce Dessner: Aheym
PART 2 – PLANETARIUM Composed and performed by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & Sufjan Stevens