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Review of concert from 2004-07-17: NYC, Avery Fisher Hall, Il Sogno, plus set with EC & SN - with the Brooklyn Philharmonic
Star-Ledger, 2004-07-19
- Bradley Bambarger


Costello the composer

Popular singer turns a page with first orchestral work
Monday, July 19, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

NEW YORK -- For pop musicians, there is a fine line between artistic ambitions and pretension. What enables one to earn the tag of intrepid, while another is labeled a poser?

A long litany of rock artists have sought to mature gracefully by composing "classical" music, whether or not they could actually orchestrate or even read music on paper. Unlike some of his illustrious peers, Elvis Costello took the trouble to learn skills that he could easily have done without as a successful singer/songwriter.

Costello's first orchestral work, the ballet score "Il Sogno" ('The Dream'), garnered its North American premiere on Saturday as the final panel in the Lincoln Center Festival's triptych devoted to his versatile muse and marking his 50th birthday. (On previous nights, he sang in front of a jazz orchestra and with his rock combo, the Imposters.) The piece brims with color and charm of a kind wholly distinct from Costello's pop music or even his classically oriented song cycle, "The Juliet Letters."

Although episodic and a bit long at about an hour (but then many collections of dance cues seem that way), "Il Sogno" was also unflaggingly melodious, rhythmically vital and -- most impressive -- orchestrated with kaleidoscopic vividness. Reading music is one thing; orchestration is quite another (with most rockers who compose orchestral works ceding that all-important job to trained experts). Costello seems to have taken to this new art with as much panache as he did Americana, torch songs or other genre offshoots from his initial vein of combustible, if highly literate, rock'n'roll.

Commissioned for an Italian ballet company's adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Costello's score evokes the material's bittersweet humor and magical air. His soundprint alternated between Stravinsky's commedia dell'arte pastiche "Pulcinella" and the impressionistic big-band charts of Gil Evans. Throughout, there were beguiling sonic touches from bell-like tuned percussion, cascading cimbalom, arching trumpet and swinging trap drums, as well as much mellow-toned saxophone.

The Brooklyn Philharmonic under conductor Brad Lubman performed the jazzy parts with plenty of insouciance, shifting idiomatic gears between those and the more "classical" passages with aplomb. A younger, more rock 'n' roll crowd than usual for Avery Fisher Hall, the audience seemed thrilled, or at least genuinely impressed, by the fresh, tuneful "Il Sogno." But the reception for the concert's second half -- featuring Costello singing a brace of his songs with the orchestra, plus his longtime pianist, Steve Nieve, and double-bassist Greg Cohen -- was rapturous.

In spectacular voice, from sotto voce to stentorian, Costello sang several songs that he orchestrated for his recent ballad album, "North." The one vintage number Costello brought out was "Almost Blue," which has become something of a modern standard, interpreted by more singers than just his new wife, star jazz chanteuse Diana Krall. The laconic Richard Harvey arrangement of "The Birds Will Still Be Singing," from "The Juliet Letters," was another highlight.

Costello also aired songs from his next Imposters album, which -- further illustrating his multi-faceted ways -- will come out the same September day as a Deutsche Grammophon disc featuring "Il Sogno." The concluding item brought out another side of the English artist -- that of the showman. He turned off the microphone to voice his Nino Rota-like waltz "Couldn't Call It Unexpected #4," leading the audience in a wordless singalong at the end. It was, to use an adjective rarely applied to Costello in his days as an "angry young man," enchanting.


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