Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2006

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Costello, CSO provide
classic moments at Orchestra Hall

Bob Gendron

Dressed to the nines, a tuxedo-clad Elvis Costello stepped onto the stage Tuesday night at Orchestra Hall, amicably greeted the crowd of 1,400, and introduced the evening's opening piece. And then he left.

Costello would return, but not until his backing band — for this special occasion, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Alan Broadbent — performed excerpts from the Great Britain native's Il Sogno score. Though sleepy in spots, the suite set the elegant tone for the 110-minute CSO Corporate Night concert, a semiprivate charity benefit at which even champagne toasts took a back seat to the fine art of arrangement.

No stranger to classical structure, Costello selected material that benefited from or originally involved formal accompaniment. Careful not to overwhelm the mix of chamber pop, torch songs and blues ballads, the CSO delicately exposed the melodic crevices, shy romance and minor-key transitions laced throughout the singer's work.

While Costello is revered for his sardonic wit and angry cynicism, the black-tie affair called for tenderness, restraint and reflection; rock would wait for another time. Costello responded with the ballroom-ready "Still," head-over-heels waltz "She" and closing-time dance "Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue," a smoky number whisked by winds and violins. Airy strings cast a quizzical gaze on a recast "All This Useless Beauty," which blossomed into a lush sonic bouquet.

The collaboration was at its best when Costello kicked up the tempos and coaxed the CSO to swing into big-band territory. Steeped in alibis, "My Flame Burns Blue" assumed a swank undercover groove while the slow, melancholy "Almost Blue" burned holes in hearts as it lurched to an icy finish.

Yet the standout was "Watching the Detectives," a new-wave classic reimagined as a '50s noir-jazz TV crime-drama theme. Bathed in blood-red lighting, the ensemble conveyed the narrative's voyeuristic intent and turned up the thermostat, leaving space for street-corner sax and boozy trombone solos before pianist Steve Nieve's left-handed scurries foreshadowed his longtime partner's scat singing. Refusing to let the music drag, Nieve remains a mad scientist on the ivories, a colorist who's as exciting to watch as he is to hear.

Costello said goodnight by crooning "Couldn't Call It Unexpected #4" without a microphone, leaning over the edge of the stage as he belted notes with the deliberateness of a lover professing devotion outside his girlfriend's second-story window.

Amazingly, Costello's vocal range continues to improve as he ages, his control sharper, balance proper and enunciation clear. Early on, the 51-year-old strummed out the fiercely soulful "The River in Reverse" on acoustic guitar, questioning the human will, political deception and splintered wreckage that follow a devastating flood — namely, Hurricane Katrina. Conscious that the orchestra's epic sweep and dramatic heft would've drowned out most musicians, his advance solo statement headed off any such concerns and served as a reminder that, even in the face of a world-class instrumental arsenal, Costello's voice still emotionally rings out like a bell of truth.

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Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2006

Bob Gendron reviews Elvis Costello with Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Steve Nieve, Tuesday, April 18, 2006, Symphony Centre, Chicago.

2006-04-21 Chicago Tribune page 5-03-clipping 01.jpg

Photo by Tracy Allen.
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