Sometimes the reporter has to play the intermediary. Elvis Costello wanted to know why his concerts this weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra couldn't be at the Orpheum Theatre, his favorite venue in the Twin Cities.
It's elementary, Elvis: The orchestra couldn't fit on the Orpheum stage, and it happens to have its own acoustically refined Orchestra Hall.
Meanwhile, the orchestra people had a pressing question for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer: What music are they going to play?
"The program has been mutating," he said. While people may expect a lot of instrumental music, Costello actually has come up with orchestral arrangements of nearly two dozen of his songs, working with longtime pianist Steve Nieve and others.
"The misapprehension is that with a symphony it's a very staid and high-flown thing," he said.
"The reality is that it's a lot more seat-of-the-pants than rock gigs, which are rehearsed within an inch of their life with all the lighting cues and stuff. We have a couple of songs that we look for volunteers to solo on; sometimes we end up with unusual configurations like clarinet and tuba."
Costello will arrive this afternoon for rehearsal with conductor Alan Broadbent and charts for "Watching the Detectives," Shipbuilding" and the new "Serenity," which he co-wrote with jazz pianist Marian McPartland. The amount of rehearsal time helps determine which selections he'll play.
He and the orchestra also will perform passages from Il Sogno, a 40-minute orchestral score he composed in 2000 for a ballet, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. He said it's "a tricky piece: lots of quick episodes with character-driven motifs."
Last year he did about a dozen concerts with orchestras, and he has booked five this fall.
"I enjoy the hell out of it," said the singer-guitarist, sounding more like a rocker than a maestro. "And the orchestras get a few people through the door who haven't been to see them too many times."
The son of a bandleader, Declan MacManus grew up in London listening to all kinds of music. Since emerging as Elvis Costello in 1977, he has written and recorded in a variety of genres, including rock, jazz, country, pop and R&B. He has made albums with the Brodsky String Quartet, opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter and the London Symphony Orchestra.
"I've done some pieces that are purely instrumental; I don't see it as classical music as such. It's just music," he said. "I don't have any big ax to grind. I'm not setting myself up to be Stravinsky or something. Relax and listen instead of being so absolute about everything."
Pretty much self-taught, he had composed 200 songs before he began writing down his music so he could more effectively communicate with other musicians.
"Hand signals and threats don't work with orchestras the way they do with rock 'n' roll bands," he said. "To a band, you can say, 'Play it like that Small Faces record we all liked.' You can't say to an orchestra, 'Play it like Bartok.'"
This week saw the release of a deluxe edition of Costello's landmark 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, which includes demos, outtakes and a live CD. Currently, he's composing a score for a Twyla Tharp project next spring with the Miami City Ballet.
Sounding as cynical as when he emerged in the punk era, Costello is not even talking about recording another album of his pop songs.
"That's so gone now, where we worry about [sales and airplay] charts and record companies and record shops and radio stations," said Costello, who released an R&B album with Allen Toussaint last year and a rock CD in 2004. "It seems that that older form of just playing music in front of people is what's going to prevail. Who remembers 8-track [tapes]? We'll feel the same way about CDs and MP3 any moment now."
Gigging is now Costello's thing, no matter the format. In May, he and his band, the Imposters, played at the Myth nightclub in Maplewood. It was not his favorite Twin Cities show.
"It was like the airport lounge," said Costello. "It doesn't have a lot of feeling to it. It's like people should be eating canapes and drinking espresso in there. The night before, I went to see the Arctic Monkeys at First Avenue; now that's where we should have been playing."
Costello, 53, was calling from Milwaukee, where he was about to attend a concert by his wife, jazz star Diana Krall. Their infant twin sons could be heard in the background. "They're great travelers," he said.
This month, he has juggled orchestral outings with duo gigs with Nieve. On Sept. 22, he'll grab his guitar to begin a series of solo sets on Bob Dylan's tour, something he did in 1995 in Europe.
"You're never going to upstage him," said Costello. "Bob's tours are celebrated for going to places nobody else goes to. Clemson, South Carolina, has not been on my itinerary before now. I did look twice when I saw the first date of the tour was in Duluth. I figured he was opening in his hometown, and then I found it was Duluth, Georgia, someplace I've never heard of."