London Evening Standard, June 30, 2000

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London Evening Standard

UK & Irish newspapers

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Elvis and the airheads


Rick Jones

Some pop stars, as they age, try to buy themselves into the classical world. It saves them having to shut themselves away in practice rooms or grapple with Palestrina in their youth and it lends their three-minute song forms intellectual gravitas if they can get a mention on BBC Radio 3. The dittysmith Elvis Costello is one of these and Islington's Almeida Opera Festival is just the kind of air-headed enterprise to fall for the pretence.

Michael Thomas conducted the seven-piece Composers' Ensemble in tediously simple songs, mostly by Costello, which Thomas himself had arranged. Nothing was very clear. The expensive programme gave little away and Thomas's haphazard announcements were too vague. Informality posed for laziness.

What was the first piece? A "singer" introduced as Johny (sic) Brown spoke the lines with an aggressive sneer too close to a microphone. The accompaniment of strings, clarinet, flute and piano was thin. Its distorted, heavy-footed tango gave way to an easy four-four cello solo. Perhaps it was trying to emulate Stravinsky's jaunty music for "The Soldier's Tale" but it lacked the necessary spark and sounded only lumpy and beat-heavy.

Song No 2 was "King of the Unknown Seas." Thomas himself sang it in a weedy, amplified tenor and never quite managed to tune the tricky descending part of the melody. He read the words from a notebook even though he must have sung them dozens of times before.

No 3 was "Having it All," arranged over innocent, clichėd harmonies. No 6 was "Couldn't Call it Unexpected" which summed up the predictable music. No 7 was an unnamed violin solo of pastiche quotes from the classical repertoire. No 12 was "Favourite Hour," which Costello himself leapt onto the stage gruffly to sing. No 10 was from The Juliet Letters and entitled "The First to Leave." I took it as a challenge.

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The Evening Standard, June 30, 2000


Rick Jones reviews Elvis Costello with Michael Thomas and Composers' Ensemble, Thursday, June 29, 2000, Almeida Theatre, London, England.


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