Elvis Costello's ballet Il Sogno is interesting and attractive because we know he wrote it, but it is good enough to reward attention even if it were by an unknown composer.
The music is Costello's response to a commission from an Italian ballet company that wanted to stage its own dance adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2000; now it appears on Deutsche Grammophon CD in a performance by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra. Before recording the score, Costello listened to advice from Thomas, and took it, but he wrote the music and orchestrated it on his own — unlike other stars from the world of popular music who have called on professional assistance when they wanted to write something "classical." In the field of popular music, you'd have to go back to George Gershwin to find a composer-performer undertaking a project as ambitious as Il Sogno.
The music is rhythmically lively, as dance music must be. It is full of character and storytelling, and the orchestration is skillful, unusual, and colorful — there are prominent roles for the trumpet, the saxophone, and the Hungarian cimbalom (a kind of hammered dulcimer), as well as a battery of jazz percussion.
One would expect some catchy tunes, and Costello supplies them, but the piece is also quite ambitiously and thoroughly composed. The tunes are themes, and most of them are derived from a "mother theme" — the "dream" motive, which is itself built out of a complex harmony that recalls Ravel. The themes assemble themselves, recur, develop, intermingle, and arrive at a destination. Each of the worlds in Shakespeare's play — the court; the forest of fairies and enchantment; the rustics — has its own sound in Costello's orchestration. Sometimes ideas are not developed as fully as they might be; this is true of many ballet scores, which by definition are mosaics. Sometimes one wants to hear more inner activity between the outer layers of the music, more counterpoint propelling and illuminating the harmony. Sometimes Costello falls into cliche, but he often avoids or sidesteps it.
It is easy to play the game of influences — one can hear all kinds of familiar music that Costello loves, everything from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker to the film scores of Henry Mancini and John Williams. (There's as much harp-and-celesta here as there is in Williams's Harry Potter music.) There are references to baroque music, fanfares, hunting horns, Latin music, and trumpet blues in the night. Despite its invention, charm, and surprise, it doesn't neglect the darker side.
Costello says in the liner notes, "[This score] has the edges, angles that I go looking for in rock-and-roll, but the way they are achieved is utterly different." Costello's fans will recognize him here, and discover more of him.