Review of concert from 2000-06-29: London, Almeida Theatre - with Composers Ensemble
Evening Standard, 2000-06-30
- Rick Jones
Elvis and the airheads
by Rick Jones
Some pop stars, as they age, try to buy themselves into the classical world. It saves them having to shut themselves away in practice rooms or grapple with Palestrina in their youth and it lends their three-minute song forms intellectual gravitas if they can get a mention on BBC Radio 3. The dittysmith Elvis Costello is one of these and Islington's Almeida Opera Festival is just the kind of air-headed enterprise to fall for the pretence.
Michael Thomas conducted the seven-piece Composers' Ensemble in tediously simple songs, mostly by Costello, which Thomas himself had arranged. Nothing was very clear. The expensive programme gave little away and Thomas's haphazard announcements were too vague. Informality posed for laziness.
What was the first piece? A "singer" introduced as Johny (sic) Brown spoke the lines with an aggressive sneer too close to a microphone. The accompaniment of strings, clarinet, flute and piano was thin. Its distorted, heavy-footed tango gave way to an easy four-four cello solo. Perhaps it was trying to emulate Stravinsky's jaunty music for The Soldier's Tale but it lacked the necessary spark and sounded only lumpy and beat-heavy.
Song No2 was King of the Unknown Seas. Thomas himself sang it in a weedy, amplified tenor and never quite managed to tune the tricky descending part of the melody. He read the words from a notebook even though he must have sung them dozens of times before.
No3 was Having it All, arranged over innocent, clichéd harmonies. No6 was Couldn't Call it Unexpected which summed up the predictable music. No7 was an unnamed violin solo of pastiche quotes from the classical repertoire. No12 was Favourite Hour, which Costello himself leapt onto the stage gruffly to sing. No 10 was from The Juliet Letters and entitled The First to Leave. I took it as a challenge.