The first performance in Dublin of The Juliet Letters at the Gate Theatre last night was both a delight and an eye-opener; this musical collaboration between rock star Elvis Costello and classical rebels The Brodsky Quartet explored new avenues of song writing hitherto only briefly in visited Costello's previous pop outings. While not daring to imply that the forthcoming album will be equal to, or better than, Costello's greatest rock recordings, it will certainly offer the listener some superb new compositions and a chance to hear the best of modern chamber music.
Although this was ostensibly a classical recital, there was room for irreverence, and Costello encouraged this with many flicks of the eyebrow and some hilarious lyrics. "I Almost Had A Weakness," for instance, sent the audience wild with laughter and drew exuberant applause. Other songs like "Romeo's Seance" relied on clever and atmospheric accompaniment for their humour, thus avoiding the trap of insulting the listener's intelligence. The Quartet had the uncanny ability of telling a joke with their bows and hitting the punchline with a musical flourish.
Costello sang in the style of Costello, reading the works in his recognisable dry, ironic tone,though he did stretch his range in many places, just about reaching the required notes. Most of the songs, though, were far from sardonic, and Costello managed us to plumb depths of feeling you wouldn't think possible with his limited voice. "The Letter Home" evoked a feeling of resigned emptiness, while "Taking My Life In Your Hand," produced a volatile mix of hope and despair. Costello couldn't help inserting the odd political comment, a debunking of last spring's British elections and "I Thought I'd Write To Juliet" the climactic set-piece that included a harrowing message from a young woman sent to war with nothing but a gas mask and some photographs.
When the performance ended and all the curtain-call on had been made, nothing less than an encore would satisfy the audience, and Costello duly obliged, though he declined a request to sing "Oliver's Army." All in all, this was a triumph of worth over worthiness, and both pop music and classical music were well served by this interesting and unusual performance.