The Nashville Symphony Orchestra's season-opening concerts last weekend revealed exactly what this ensemble can do when everything clicks. On Saturday, the NSO under its music adviser Leonard Slatkin delivered classical renditions that were both dead-on accurate and passionately romantic. In performances with Elvis Costello the following night, the orchestra proved it could swing as if it were a bona fide big band.
In recent years, there's been some legitimate concern about the fate of pops orchestras. These ensembles once could rely on a steady stream of talent from both Broadway and the jazz world. But how would pops orchestras do in the age of rock?
The answer, apparently, is fantastic, at least when it comes to Elvis Costello. This rocker has long been comfortable working with orchestras. And on Sunday he gave an unforgettable performance with the NSO.
The concert, under NSO resident conductor Albert-George Schram, opened with Costello's Il Sogno Suite, an instrumental work the rocker composed in 2000 to accompany a performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Stylistically, the piece was a real hodgepodge. It was an odd mix of Renaissance period music (those prominent dulcimer solos), John Williams soundtrack (the lush strings) and big band romp (Puck was expressed through a jazz saxophone). Yet the piece was also amazingly approachable, and it the won the composer some polite classical applause.
The thunderous ovations came later, when Costello picked up his guitar and began singing. He occasionally performed tunes with his trademark rhythmic drive — "Veronica" was especially exciting. But he was at his orchestral best in such ballads as "She" and "The Scarlet Tide," proving once again that for all his cool cynicism, Costello is a sentimentalist at heart.