It must have taken some nerve, if not downright gall, for Declan MacManus to rename himself Elvis Costello in 1977, with the King not yet cold in his grave. But then, Costello has never been shy about making bold career moves or finding new avenues for his restless musical interests, and by now he has produced a body of creative work that for sheer quantity, stylistic diversity, and risk-taking is probably without parallel in rock. For that reason alone, Lincoln Center had good cause to honor Costello with an ambitious three-concert retrospective in Avery Fisher Hall that served as the musical centerpiece of this summer’s festival. Apparently, the project held small appeal for the city’s classical-music fraternity, at least what’s left of it, since most of my colleagues stayed away.
Costello’s longtime attachment to classical music, however, was enough to pique my interest. He has already done some intriguing work with the Brodsky String Quartet and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, but the major event in Lincoln Center’s tribute was his first symphonic score, Il Sogno, a ballet based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and composed for the Italian dance company Aterballetto. Il Sogno is actually quite different from the sort of music usually produced by pop-rock musicians who dabble in classical forms. Paul McCartney, for example, can neither read nor write musical notation, and it’s said that he composes his orchestral pieces by humming some tunes and playing a few notes on a keyboard while a musically literate associate takes it all down and tries to stitch a piece together. Costello, to his credit, laboriously taught himself how to read music before working with the Brodsky Quartet in 1992, and he wrote Il Sogno directly into full score without relying on preliminary sketches, computers, or collaborators.
The hour-and-a-half-long ballet still sounds more like a compilation than an organically developed symphonic conception—but then, so do the great Tchaikovsky ballet scores. And who knows what a closer examination of Costello’s compositional processes might reveal, since something of genuine musical interest is going on every moment. Like all composers who have been attracted to Shakespeare’s Dream, from Mendelssohn to Britten, Costello makes capital from the play’s three dramatic levels: seductively mysterious visions for the fairy world, full-blooded romantic strains for the squabbling lovers, and bubbly rhythmic momentum for the earthy rustics. Even without the visual aid of dancers and scenery, the music creates a remarkable sense of fluidity that smoothly leads from one plain to the other, especially in the meticulously prepared performance by the Brooklyn Philharmonic under Brad Lubman.
The wide-ranging eclecticism that characterizes Costello’s songwriting style—punk, rhythm and blues, soul, jazz, folk, funk, bluegrass—can be detected in his classical persona as well, and it would be tedious to list all the composers who come to mind while listening to Il Sogno. I’m not sure that identifying them would be especially helpful either, since Costello has a way of absorbing his influences, rethinking them, and challenging the listener on his own terms. That partly comes from his quirky melodic shapes that always keep the ear guessing, as well as an innate feeling for tangy instrumental combinations that you can’t learn from orchestration manuals. Il Sogno may be no deathless masterpiece, but it definitely adds up to a most engaging romp through Shakespeare.
The rest of Lincoln Center’s homage showed Costello in more familiar contexts. The fans turned out in force for an evening with his band, the Imposters. Rock tribal rituals conducted at a decibel level beyond the threshold of pain are not my scene, and it seemed that whatever Costello hoped to accomplish with his songs and his voice got swallowed up in a sonic hell of screaming and pounding electronic amplification. Still, I had to wonder how many other pop-rock figures give this generously of themselves, singing, playing, and reaching out nonstop for a full two and a half hours.
An opportunity to get yet another perspective on Costello’s work came in a program with the Netherlands Metropole Orkest, a 52-piece jazz orchestra whose performance history goes back to 1945. That collaboration definitely had its charms, but Costello really won me over when, after the performance of Il Sogno, he put his microphone aside and sang an unamplified medley with pianist Steve Nieve and bassist Davey Farragher. Only without the fierce electronic trappings, I think, is it possible to appreciate the full stylistic range and stinging melodic twists of his songs, the verbal density of the lyrics (“Oh, it’s not easy to resist temptation walkin’ around lookin’ like a figment of somebody else’s imagination”), and even the husky vulnerability of Costello’s unglamorous but oddly appealing baritone.