A Cosmic Evening at ‘Planetarium’


From left, Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, and Bryce Dessner performing their song series, "Planetarium" at BAM. Photo: Ed Lefkowicz

From left, Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, and Bryce Dessner performing their song series, Planetarium at BAM. Photo: Ed Lefkowicz

Brooklyn is full of great artists and musicians, but Planetarium offered the chance to see a constellation of Brooklyn indie stars sharing a stage. The collaborative work by composer Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, and Bryce Dessner (The National), had its U.S. debut at BAM on Thursday and I had the pleasure of checking it out.

All three musicians are locals, and have done groundbreaking work in the borough before. Nico Muhly had the world premiere of his piece “Tell the Way,” featuring the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, at St. Ann’s Warehouse a couple of years ago (also featuring Bryce Dessner); Sufjan Stevens performed his homage to The BQE in ‘07 at BAM; and just last year, Bryce Dessner and his twin brother Aaron curated the first-ever Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival at BAM (the second edition, featuring acts like Solange, TV on the Radio, and the Roots, is happening April 25-27.)

The three are also friends, which provided the genesis for Planetarium. The hour-long spectacle is only the second part of the evening, though; the show opens with a string quartet performing pieces by Dessner, Stevens, and Muhly. The works are all beautiful and clearly identifiable to each artist; Dessner’s piece “Little Blue Something” has the same atmospheric feel as a National song, and selections from Stevens’ “Run Rabbit Run” (arranged for string quartet by Muhly and one of the violinists) still manages to sound bombastic despite the stripped-down arrangement.

After a brief intermission, Dessner, Stevens, and Muhly emerge to join seven trombonists, a drummer, the string quartet, and a massive floating orb, with projected visuals by artist Deborah Johnson. Planetarium begins with an ode to watery Neptune, and takes on the solar system, including the sun, the moon and the planets (even Pluto!) The orchestral pieces feature vocals and lyrics by Stevens, guitar by Dessner, and some impressive piano/celeste/keyboard/conducting multitasking by Muhly. As the pieces are performed, the orb shifts to take on the characteristics of each planet, providing a visually stunning backdrop to the alternatingly melancholic, powerful, and grandiose pieces.

The second song, based on Jupiter, was perhaps the most engrossing. With a repeated refrain of “sermon of death says Jupiter is the loneliest planet,” the aggressive piece introduces an EDM segment toward the end, complete with laser lights and a flashing white backdrop, and it totally works, feeling like the coolest planetarium-set rave ever.

The show ended with a beautiful encore performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was a truly cosmic evening; one can only hope that Dessner, Stevens, and Muhly’s friendship is a long-lasting one.

Tickets may be available for the remaining performances of Planetarium tonight, March 23 and Sunday, March 24. Call 718.636.4100 for availability.

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