Arizona Republic, March 6, 2005

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Rocker Costello scores ballet

Kenneth LaFave

Crossover, your name is Elvis Costello. The Brit-rock singer-songwriter has edged his way over from the popular world into those of jazz and classical, even collaborating with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter some years ago.

And now, ballet. Costello composed the music for Il Sogno, Italian for The Dream and based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, on commission from an Italian ballet troupe.

The result is a colorful, tuneful score that, as recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, is also our Arizona Republic-KBAQ Classical CD of the Week.

As so often happens when pop people move into the realm of the so-called serious, Costello's score is much more conservative than it might have been had a classical composer received the commission. This is music that would fit aptly into any of the older film versions of Shakespeare's comedy. Mystery, amour and comedy from broad to refined are underlined in fairly expected musical terms (Bottom's music, for instance, virtually brays), though always with taste and skill. Such modernities as there are stem from orchestration effects: the use of a quasi-jazzy saxophone, the inclusion of the cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer identified almost solely with Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite), and the distinctive use of string harmonics to depict the otherworldliness of Oberon and Titania.

Why then, is this a CD of the Week? Because if a former punk rocker can expand sufficiently to embrace a language originally foreign to him, he ought to be encouraged. Because if an artist can do this, then perhaps some fans will take him up on the implied dare, give a listen to Elvis-does-the-ballet, then move on to Ravel or Prokofiev. As my 13-year-old son said when I asked him why he played this music along with Green Day and Muse, "Because it's Elvis Costello, and that's cool." Hey, any way that works.

We also picked it because this is a charming and listenable score. Colors are its strongest suit, but here also are disarmingly innocent melodies, transparent and ingratiating harmonies and an overarching sense of musical picturemaking.

Costello takes his new métier seriously. Instead of letting someone else do the hard work of orchestrating this piece, he plunged into the study of orchestration and came out a savvy writer who knows how to combine winds, string and brass to pleasant effect. (It's harder than you think.)

I expect to hear Costello's opera by 2010.

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Arizona Republic, March 6, 2005

Kenneth LaFave reviews Il Sogno.


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