Baltimore Sun, April 19, 2006

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Look who's playing with BSO:
singer, guitarist Costello


Tim Smith

"It's a lot of music," Elvis Costello said yesterday about his latest tour program. "And that's what I want."

The program will find the genre-hurdling singer, guitarist and composer playing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for three nights, starting tomorrow. Half of each concert will be devoted to a suite from Costello's first full-length classical composition, Il Sogno, the rest to a sampling of his many songs, delivered with full orchestral arrangements.

The tour, which has already included performances with the San Francisco, Houston and, last night, Chicago symphonies, is yet one more demonstration of Costello's remarkable versatility. (You can get a taste of the tour material on the recently released CD My Flame Burns Blue.)

Since his initial incursions into punk rock in the late 1970s, the London-born Costello has never worn any one label for long. At 51, he still defies narrow definitions. He sounds equally at home as a jazz balladeer or a hard-driving rocker, while his songwriting takes surprising turns of melody, harmony, lyrics and structure.

It was perhaps inevitable that Costello should explore the classical realm. He has worked on creative projects with a hot chamber music British ensemble, the Brodsky Quartet, and acclaimed Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter.

Next year will see the premiere of a piece commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera about Hans Christian Andersen, legendary soprano Jenny Lind and uber-showman P.T. Barnum (a "work-in-progress" version was performed last fall in Copenhagen with Costello singing the parts of Andersen and Barnum).

In 2000, Costello was commissioned by Aterbaletto, an Italian dance company, to write a full-length ballet based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The result was Il Sogno, which has been performed throughout Europe. The composition process, including the vivid orchestration, took 10 weeks.

"I did it all myself," Costello said yesterday by phone from Chicago. "I was told it would be faster if I used a computer program, but I felt there was a danger of cheating. It was important to do it myself with pencil. I wanted to feel the physical act of composing."

A recording of the stylistically eclectic music by the London Symphony Orchestra with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas topped the classical charts for 14 weeks in 2004.

Costello gradually fashioned a 30-minute suite from the hour-plus ballet for the current tour.

"I experimented until I created a satisfying shape to the suite," Costello said. "It's got a lot of short episodes that have quick changes of moods and tempo and character. Some orchestra musicians might think, 'It can't be that difficult, it's only pop music,' but it's not simplistic by any means."

Many of the performances for this tour get only one rehearsal ("The economic reality of orchestras obviously squeezes rehearsal time," the composer said), so Costello's pleased that he's getting two with the BSO. "And I'm delighted to have three nights with one orchestra. We'll really get to know each other," he said.

The vocal portion of the program presents its own challenges. "A lot of the songs we'll be doing are more like art songs or scenes, with an ebb and flow," Costello said. "They don't have a solid beat. You have to have cohesion for them to sound like anything."

Getting a classical orchestra to fit snugly into another style can be tricky, but, so far, Costello has encountered no obvious resistance. "I'm not expecting the musicians to be impressed by my credentials," he said. "But they're all professionals. I'm going on the assumption that everybody is going to do their best. And, for me, it's really interesting to see what happens on this tour. Every orchestra has a different personality and different strengths."

Costello, whose father was a musician in a jazz band, developed his own diverse strengths early on.

"From childhood, I was taken to classical music concerts," he said. "A lot of different music was available to me. And I developed my own curiosities."

In his late 30s, Costello started returning to classical concerts in a big way ("Five or six nights a week," he said), taking advantage of London's music scene to catch such esteemed artists as conductor Klaus Tennstedt and pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

When he first heard von Otter, he was immediately drawn into her rarefied world of art songs by Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Poulenc and Scandinavian composers -- "Some of the music I might not have stumbled on, but did because I liked her voice," he said.

Taking fresh musical paths comes naturally to Costello. Getting rock/pop/hip-hop/whatever fans to do more of that boundary-crossing is something that classical music organizations would pay dearly to achieve.

"You have to have a natural curiosity," Costello said. "You can't force it. And sometimes, when someone's trying to make classical music groovy for the kids, it's some sort of gimmicky thing, or there's a feeling they're being lectured at or patronized. Young people can see through that, just as they can see through it when someone tries it in pop music."

Costello is under no illusions when he appears with orchestras.

"I know the audience will be mixed between subscribers who may be curious about me and people from my audience who will be wondering, 'When is he going to pick up a guitar and sing?' I'm not trying to convert anyone to another religion. I'm not on a crusade. I'm just playing music."

But if some Costello fans drawn by the prospect of hearing his own classics, such as "Watching the Detectives" or "She," end up getting interested in symphonic music, he wouldn't be surprised.

"When you actually come into a hall and hear an orchestra play, it is hard not to be affected by the physical action of hearing that music created, to feel the expression being brought to the music by the players," Costello said.

That's one thing that still keeps him going to concerts.

"Yes, you can hear a perfunctory performance of a Beethoven symphony, because the chemistry isn't right between conductor and orchestra, or maybe it's just an off-night," Costello said. "But there are also nights when something unbelievably magical happens, even with familiar pieces."

Although he is composing all the time, don't expect a full-fledged symphony from Costello. "I don't know if I have one in me," he said. "Chamber music is a more intimate form. I could really see myself doing that."

Meanwhile, in his nonclassical pursuits, count on more collaborative efforts, like the surprising one with Burt Bacharach a few years back. His next CD, The River in Reverse, due in May, was made with veteran New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint.

And Costello recently recorded a duet with celebrated songster Tony Bennett for release later this year. What tune did they share?

"'Are You Having Any Fun?'" Costello said. "And, yes, I am."

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The Baltimore Sun, April 19, 2006


Tim Smith previews Elvis Costello with Steve Nieve and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Thursday, April 20, 2006, Strathmore Hall, Rockville, MD.


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