There are classical musicians, rock musicians, pop musicians, jazz musicians — and then there is Elvis Costello, a genre unto himself.
For the better part of three decades, the British-born, severely bespectacled Costello has been a remarkable source of interesting, sophisticated, surprising music and music-making, earning a broad fan base with his skills as a singer/songwriter and guitarist.
In recent years, he has gained additional respect for tackling ambitious composition projects, including a full-length ballet score, Il Sogno, served up in an appetizer portion for his current tour with symphony orchestras.
That tour brought Costello to our region this week to play three gigs with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the first one delivered in decidedly vibrant fashion Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore.
Il Sogno, commissioned by an Italian dance company and based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, won't knock similarly centered scores by Mendelssohn or Britten off the shelf, but it's an attractive, accomplished piece of writing.
Costello is particularly persuasive when he lets his gift for melody soar, whether in jazzy bursts or in lushly romantic passages, such as Oberon Humbled, that suggest the richness of a John Barry film score. Curls of neo-Baroque courtliness and send-ups of Rossini add to the work's charm.
There are moments when Costello seems eager to prove he knows modern music, so he slips in a few diffuse or dissonant chords. But most of the music rings true, and the orchestration is particularly assured, with unexpected Eastern European and Middle Eastern coloring.
Conductor Alan Broadbent led the mostly tight BSO in a 30-minute suite from Il Sogno. Rene Hernandez's pinpoint trumpet solos were a highlight.
Costello didn't make his audience wait long to hear his nonclassical side, running onstage to grab a guitar almost before the last notes of the ballet score faded so he could deliver a gritty performance of "The River in Reverse," from his soon-to-be-released, Katrina-haunted CD of that name. The song needs only a couple of chords to give emotional weight to some very strong, angry words about how "an uncivil war divides the nation."
The bulk of the evening found Costello and orchestra working together on material from various periods in his career, each item given distinctive character by arrangements alive with character.
These days, everybody in pop/rock seems to be turning back to standards (can "Dylan Sings Gershwin" be far behind?), but Costello isn't really doing a simple nostalgia thing. In effect, he creates new standards.
Some are his own tunes and inventive lyrics, such as the smoky "Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue" and "Almost Blue," both phrased eloquently in this concert and enriched by particularly atmospheric arrangements.
In other cases, Costello has given a second life to existing material, setting perfectly matched words to Billy Strayhorn's haunting "My Flame Burns Blue" and Charles Mingus' edgy "Hora Decubitus."
The effect Thursday was retro and nouveau — the snazziness of a vintage Vegas Strip show, filtered through contemporary sensibilities. The old Brat Pack would have loved the kinetic new version of Costello's 1977, reggae-inflected hit "Watching the Detectives," transformed into a hard-driving, brassy, ecstatic '60s TV theme song.
It says a lot that Costello can even sell a Charles Aznavour melody ("She") and create fresh material with Burt Bacharach (he sang three of those emotional collaborations during this show).
Costello is not the first pop singer whose voice lands frequently shy of the pitch, or turns thin and grainy when wailing away in the upper register. Both limitations got in the way Thursday, but only briefly, because he had an ace up his tuxedo sleeve — style, and a powerfully elastic one at that.
With a timbre that has a little of Randy Newman's gruffness and Neil Young's whine, Costello worked a kind of vocal magic all night, whether going for expressive intensity or intimate lyricism.
He enjoyed attentive support from Broadbent, subtly sparkling pianism from Steve Nieve and with-it playing from the BSO.
Costello sang his last encore without a mike, turning the beguiling and poetic "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" into an improbably seductive sing-along with the audience. A classy finish.