The hummingbird-voiced harpist Joanna Newsom played the first of two shows with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM last night, and it wasn’t cutesy or quirky or kitschy.
It was glorious.
But four years ago, when she was 22 years and two months old, Ms. Newsom’s debut, The Milk Eyed Mender, an album of squeaky folk yarns about bridges, balloons, beans, books, peaches and plums, came awfully close to irritating. Here, the whimsical top-of-her-range squeals (“But ships! are fallible, I say/ And the naut!ical, like all things, fades”) were gone, and her soprano and harp glistened together.
Her album Ys, a five-song epic named for a flooded mythical city, was huge and pristine onstage: violins, voices, the harp, horns and harmonies shook and bent and swelled together until everything bulged and burst, and bubbled up again.
Whimsey is out, grandeur is in. The orchestra, arranged by the pop maestro Van Dyke Parks (he collaborated with Brian Wilson, produced Ry Cooder’s debut, and once declined to join the Byrds), has turned Ms. Newsom’s music around. She now sounds less like Joni Mitchell and more like Duke Ellington.
And, oh, did the beautiful Brooklyn audience like it. There were three standing ovations from the swooning young crowd. In the span of five rows, Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers sat with Andy Samberg (rumored to be dating Ms. Newsom); David Byrne was dressed in white with a yellow helmet, and was that Francis Ford Coppola filling out a BAM questionnaire alone?
The orchestra left for the second half, when her band–a drummer and a violinist who both sang, plus a banjo player that sometimes switched to a tambura–played old songs and two new ones. It was even prettier: "Inflammatory Writ," the most irritating song on Milk Eyed Mender, had a honky-tonk lull; "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" became a Tom Waits-worthy lullaby.
Even the banter was good. In the second set, the barefoot drummer held up an Obama shirt: “He has a more liberal voting record, more progressive, than Kucinich, even!” Ms. Newsom said. “My friend Jamie went to Nevada. We really love Barack Obama."
“If anyone wants to talk,” the drummer said, “if you’re leaning in the other direction, just give me 30 seconds. I went door to door in Iowa!”
The world tour for Ys, backed by different local orchestras, ends tonight at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House.