Financial Times, July 21, 2004

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Financial Times

UK & Irish newspapers

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Elvis Costello's Il Sogno Lincoln Center, New York


Martin Bernheimer

So-called classical music is playing only a minor role at this year's Lincoln Center Festival and the facsimiles thereof are not particularly reasonable. The most prominent shreds and patches emanate from an unlikely source: Elvis Costello.

On Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall, the nearly-50-year-old wunderkind from Paddington demonstrated his rocky-jazzy-funky-symphonic eclecticism with the US premiere of a suite entitled Il Sogno. Sprawling over an hour, it entails moderate ado about A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Costello produced the score for the Italian dance company Alterballetto in 2000, and a recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra is due in September. Unaided by collaborators of any kind, as the annotation proclaims, the composer toiled on the project for 10 weeks, scrawling 200 pages in pencil. The result, divorced from the Shakespearean inspiration, sounds pretty, crafty and a tad innocuous. Think Bernstein, as in West Side Story, without the slush but also without the flair.

Having benefited from an escapade with the Brodsky Quartet, Costello is no primitive stranger in a sophisticated paradise. This is serious stuff, not to be confused with such ancient crossover misadventures as Jethro Tull's Switched-On Symphony and Frank Zappa's 200 Motels. Lean, clean and episodic, Il Sogno engages with dancerly syncopations, nifty modulations and melodic quirks.

To delineate contrasting universes, the composer provides mock-lofty music for the nobles, folkish naivety for the lower classes, swing for the fairies. The score rambles and rumbles sweetly, fits and spasms notwithstanding, and makes idiomatic use of the forces at hand. The orchestration remains essentially conventional, despite incidental use of progressive saxophone, cimbalom and a few (inaudibly) clapping hands. One recognises nods to Prokofiev here, to Gershwin there, and even traces of Mendelssohn. Still, enough original impulses remain to thwart the flattering spectre of imitation. If only those impulses were more brash, more brutal.

Urged onward if not upward by Brad Lubman, the Brooklyn Philharmonic demonstrated much apparent respect, not so much bravado. The crowd, which did not quite fill the 2,738-seat auditorium, applauded politely when the performance ended, then added a cheering ovation when Costello strolled out for a bow. After the interval the conquering hero returned for some overdressed arrangements of his greatest hits. Tel 1 212 875 5456

Copyright The Financial Times Limited.

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Financial Times, July 21, 2004


Martin Bernheimer reviews Elvis Costello, Steve Nieve and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, Saturday, July 17, 2004, Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY.


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