The Juliet Letters, Elvis Costello's collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, saw a classical ensemble working in the loose, creative manner of a rock or jazz group. They made music in the studio and the lines between writing, arranging, performing and recording became blurred. That experience inspired ex-Brodsky violinist Michael Thomas to score and conduct a whole Costello-based evening with the Composers Ensemble of piano, flute, clarinet and four strings. The atmospheric Almeida provided all the signifiers of hardcore contemporary, from the rows of empty seats to the silent pauses and shuffling of hastily copied parts between numbers: no crossover nonsense here. Hearing Costello's songs as chamber music, without the cracked varnish of the master's voice, is a surprise: with its resolutely British melodic invention and chord twists it's like. Darmstadt never happened. Shaky at first, the band gained confidence throughout the evening. Thomas's nervousness vanished whenever he picked up the fiddle to augment the band or play solo (for a superb "Birds Will Still Be Singing"). Narrator Johnny Brown, with jet black hair, black sweater and jeans, added a punkish element to several numbers, as he ranted Costello's acerbic words (including "Stalin Malone") over the intricate charts.
Thomas's arrangements covered all bases: he confessed his fear that he had "gone too far" in the virtuoso coda to "Couldn't Call it Unexpected," but this was well within the compass of the performers. Playing the simple bits was more tricky.
A big surprise came when Thomas grabbed the microphone. Classical musicians do burst into song from time to time — from avant-garde chanting to the Gogmagogs' fine John Tavener piece — but you sensed that this was a rite of passage for Thomas. His vocal performances, on songs such as "King of the Unknown Seas" and his own "Ruin," were moving and naked in a way that the ensemble wasn't. Apparently Thomas decided to do this at the last minute. It was clearly seat-of-the-pants stuff and I'm afraid it didn't always work.
But for the finale the composer, who had been listening in the audience, climbed up to sing "Favourite Hour." Despite Costello's modest "I'm just another musician" demeanour, he sang his heart out before the arrangement subsided into a lengthy coda for pianist Catherine Edwards.
Super-8 images flickered on the unplastered back wall of the theatre. You could heala pin drop. The event was an experiment, an unclassifiable, unpredictable curiosity and a rare treat for completist Elvis fans.