Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dressner And Nico Muhly - Live At The Barbican, London

We take our seats for part one of tonight’s modern classical pop fusion to be told the planned program is now defunct.

Our dream collaborative trio of alt-space-folk hero Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner of The National, and composer extraordinaire Nico Muhly have ditched their original track-listing for new opening compositions.

In the company of The Navarro Quartet, who enter with The National’s Bryce Dessner who opens the evening on guitar before leaving Magnus Johnston and Marije Ploemacher on violin, and Nathaniel Boyd and Simone van der Giessen on cello and viola to glide effortlessly through some beautiful arrangements to warm the evening up.

The post-interval selection – ‘Planetarium’, an 11 song experimental, classical suite-to-the-stars, is what the majority of the crowd are here for and the quartet again take to the stage to a more emphatic welcome. They are joined by the seven-strong New Trombone Collective, James McAllister on drums, Sufjan Stevens on vocals and synths, Dessner on guitar and Muhly on piano and celeste.

Hanging rather oddly from the ceiling is a huge orb for projections, which, from the side view we have, looks oddly like a limp balloon, only half covered with the projections of the planets it was designed to portray.

Stevens is the driving force in the early tracks, taking us through tributes to Neptune, the gas giant Jupiter and goddess of love Venus, teasing his vocals, both natural and auto-tuned, in and out of Dessner’s sparkling guitar flicks, sweeping strings and the rasping warmth of the trombone collective all orchestrated by Muhly.

The trombones play with real subtlety, building certain songs to rumbling monsters, whilst leaving more than enough space for the string section to zip in and out with slicing accents and shimmering staccato rhythms. ‘Mars’, dedicated to the god of war, is a twisted droning growler complete with shuddering electro drums, before ‘The Sun’ proves a short soothing trombone solo deviation. This leads into a more gentle galactic territory as the gentle ‘The Moon’ precedes the melancholic brooding wonder of ‘Saturn’, finished with an apology for tonight’s focus on the darkness and violence that our sibling stars offer.

The finale was always going to be a celestial one, and the euphoric tribute to our own planet Earth features skittering hi hats, trickling under the throb and gristle of the trombone section, and the bright whistle of Dessner’s intricate guitar. Muhly then has his moment of glory on ‘Mercury’ playing us into a wonderful string and trombone duel interjected by huge climactic thumps on the bass drum, ending the show in the most bombastic symphonic celebration of the wonders of the solar system.

As Brian Cox would say. "Wow, isn’t it all amazing?!"

Words by Brian Murnin
Photo by Rachel Lipsitz

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