It is strange to think that punk rock has spawned a figure as musically and artistically respected as Elvis Costello. While most survivors of that particularly intense and confrontational rock revolution can now be found flogging the dead horses of their talent on what amounts to a punk nostalgia circuit, this former angry young man has grown into perhaps the most adventurous and accomplished musical polymath of our times.
You might not be enamoured of everything Costello does, but it would be hard not to like some of it, such is its stylistic variety, artistic ambition and musical depth.
To mark his approaching 50th birthday and his recent relocation to New York (where he lives with his third wife, acclaimed jazz chanteuse Diane Krall), Costello staged three shows at the Lincoln Centre last week, each highlighting different aspects of his incredible musical range. Spanning country to classical, the prolific songwriter performed more than 70 songs from his vast catalogue.
On Tuesday night, he lent his soft croon and close tonal control to the acclaimed European jazz outfit the Netherlands Metropole Orkest. On Thursday, he stormed the austere arts centre with an impassioned rock performance by his band, the Imposters, and on Saturday he could be seen looking down from the balcony while the Brooklyn Philharmonic, conducted by Brad Lubman, performed Costello's first symphony, Il Sogno.
Originally composed for a ballet adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream by the Italian dance company Aterballetto in 2000, the 65-minute piece has been amended to flow as a purely orchestral work.
It is almost skittish in flavour, light and playful and entirely lacking in the kind of darkness that characterises Costello's songwriting. It is as if, liberated from his black lyrical sensibility, he has abandoned himself to the delightful possibilities of instrumental music.
Members of the orchestra certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, a patter of laughter coming from the stage as the tuba player punctuated one passage like a demented busker. Bitty in feel, Il Sogno shifts its musical terrain from Debussy-like harmonies to Leonard Bernstein-flavoured jazz and swing, making references to Broadway musicals as much as to the classics.
Ultimately, it does not seem a mature piece, yet it abundantly displays the musical diversity that has become Costello's hallmark. And, if it all seems a long way from punk rock, something of that era's spirit can be heard in the irreverent energy with which Costello brushes aside musical snobbery, meshing together musical worlds that many would consider incompatible.