Detroit Free Press, January 31, 1993

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Elvis Costello, classics quartet
join forces for chamber pop


Gary Graff

It was an unlikely pairing.

Elvis Costello from the pop world, the Brodsky Quartet from classical environs. But a few hours at a London wine bar dispelled any doubts about their personal chemistry. And the resultant affinity led to their new album, The Juliet Letters.

The two musical entities had been admiring each other's maverick work for years. Finally Costello, known for his acerbic lyrics and saber-toothed musical style, attended a lunchtime concert by the quartet. Later the five retired to the bar for wine, cheese and conversation.

"At 20 past 7 that night, it broke up," remembers Brodsky violinist Paul Cassidy. "Finally somebody said, 'Listen, I'm really sorry to break up the party, but I've got to go.' Everyone else said, 'I've got to go as well,' so we all said our good-byes and proceeded to cross the road again.

"Suddenly we realized we were all going to hear Mahler's Sixth that night. It was the most bizarre thing!"

The five musicians took the coincidence as a cosmic thumbs-up to a musical collaboration, and the next day they were hard at work together in the Brodskys' rehearsal studio.

The result: The Juliet Letters, a 20-song, 63-minute opus that has been greeted by polarized reviews and fan reaction. It's certainly one of the most challenging pieces in Costello's already varied oeuvre.

And its sound — a hushed brand of chamber pop — marks a stark change from the driving, angry young man stance of Costello's best-known works.

The British singer-songwriter, 37, expected the ambivalent response but he's never been one to apologize for his own ambitions.

A couple of reviews "have attacked me for daring to do something other than they imagined what I should do," Costello says. "They can't accept this. I'm 'Mr. Angry.' I can't do this. It's too wimpy. They feel like the angry Costello is better served by throbbing drums. That's completely missing the point.

"It seems like I'm treading a boundary that's too far for some people. It's not like it's never been done before. It just hasn't been done very well; I'm sorry, but I'm not responsible for Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I'm not going to be told I can't do something in collaboration with people... just because of some bad stuff that happened in the past. That's like saying you can't listen to any more rock 'n' roll because of Pat Boone."

Regardless of public response — and producer Hal Wilner's review in Spin magazine did praise it as "beautiful and moving" — Costello and Cassidy are most outspoken about the joy the musicians derived from working on The Juliet Letters. For Costello who has dabbled in a variety of pop styles, country and R&B it was a chance to work in yet another genre and to learn formal music writing skills.

The Brodskys, meanwhile, explored the realm of composition, unfamiliar terrain for most of the group. "Michael (Thomas) was a very experienced composer," says Cassidy, 33, "but the rest of us (violinist Ian Belton and cellist Jacqueline Thomas) had never composed anything. I'd never written down a note in my life.

"A lot of quartets can't do anything but play their way through a Mozart quartet. But here we were suddenly writing lyrics with this bloody genius, really contributing in a big way. Literally, we just took off, and you either got on that runaway train or you sank."

And now that The Juliet Letters is out, Costello and the Brodskys hope to ride that train for quite a while. They've planned a brief world tour from Feb. 22 to March 18 with U.S. stops in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles before the Brodskys return to their classical repertoire and Costello gets back to rock 'n' roll. But they've continued to write together, and they also feel The Juliet Letters will endure as a piece. "I think it has got a long shelf life," says Cassidy. "There's an enormous amount of interest in having us play the piece in concert, so I think it's a very real possibility we might play this a lot."

Adds Costello, "I don't want people to think this is a novelty album or a crossover album. ... I've always had this feeling musicians whether they're years or miles apart in experience or doing different music have some connection. I hear the same lonesome quality in Hank Williams that I heard in Billie Holiday. So in doing this we were trying to forget the elaborate intellectual theories; we were trying to get together as humans and really share something."

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Detroit Free Press, January 31, 1993


Gary Graff profiles Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet.

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1993-01-31 Detroit Free Press page 2G.jpg
Page scan.

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