Review by James Manheim
Reviewers who've heard Elvis Costello's Il sogno live in concert have diverged as to its merits, although a certain look-how-surprisingly-well-he-did quality is detectable in the positive opinions. This orchestral work was written for an Italian dance company that had adapted Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream into a ballet ("il sogno" means "the dream" in Italian), and it followed several smaller ventures Costello had made into the realm of classical music. Costello slightly condensed his ballet score for CD release (on whose cover he looks a bit like Henry Kissinger) and wrote a few new transitions. Unlike some other pop and rock musicians who have tried to cross over into the classics, Costello laboriously taught himself to read notation, to write for a symphony orchestra, and to shape themes and develop them. When it comes to dramatic music in the classical tradition, he did his homework well in regard to the variety of personality types a stage work might include, and to the kinds of signs that might represent them musically. Thus we have convincing supernatural music, lovers' music, and comic rustic music, all of it even stamped with a bit of Costello's irascible personality. There are elements of jazz (and to a lesser extent rock) in the score; on disc they seem to come out of nowhere, but they are interestingly matched with scenes of anger and argument. Several times they are connected with the character of Puck.
If the philosophical questions surrounding this kind of enterprise interest you, by all means buy and listen. If they don't particularly, here's what you need to know. Costello has done neither better nor worse than most of the composers who've moved from pop music into scores for the movies. He's mastered the pastiche of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Copland, and a dozen other composers that provides a sort of basic vocabulary for workaday modern orchestral music, and he did it without going to music school, which is indeed impressive. If his textures are a bit thin at times, his music has consistency and plenty of personality.
But here's something to consider. There's a whole abandoned field out there,
just waiting to be cultivated by someone with Costello's talent. George
Gershwin and Duke Ellington didn't try to imitate classical composers of
their time. Instead, they used the resources of classical music to deepen
their own musical languages, creating hybrid works that have endured. And
that's exactly what is not happening anywhere today. Billy Joel's "Scenes
from an Italian Restaurant" is a little operatic scene (with retrospective
commentary) in all but name, and an excellent one. But instead of expanding
upon it past what the boundaries of pop would normally allow, he tried,
with some success but probably little lasting impact, to write piano music
that sounded like Scriabin. Likewise, Elvis Costello's best songs ("What
would you say? What would you do?/Children and animals, two by two")
can stand up to anything in the whole satirical tradition of English music.
If ever there was someone uniquely qualified to compose a sharp-edged song
cycle, more complex and compositionally specified in greater detail than
the confines of a popular recording studio would normally permit, it is
Elvis Costello. Exactly why did he feel he had to write ballet music instead?