Maybe the blame should go to the Moody Blues for giving the merger of classical music and rock a bad name.
When the two are mixed, the result is often a bloated, indulgent affair, a bad attempt at "art" that succeeds only in excess and pretension.
The Juliet Letters, Elvis Costello's collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, isn't a vanity project or a floundering attempt at high-brow conceit by a confused singer. It is, instead, a genuine piece of artistic stretching.
Musical growth is all about doing things you couldn't do before. Costello wouldn't have wanted to do a project like this in 1978. And he wasn't capable of such an ambitious work in '78 or '83 or '88.
No excess here; the quartet stripped everything to a lean edge, where the performance had to live or die on their sublime skills and on Costello's vocals.
Costello is certainly not the first rocker to use a string quartet or the first to prove it can be done successfully; his sometime collaborator Paul McCartney proved that more than a quarter-century ago with "Yesterday."
Yet unlike that recording, The Juliet Letters is a performance that has to be brought alive to be understood. All too often on the recently released compact disc, the performance is flat or confusing, despite Costello's strong vocals and the quartet's virtuoso work.
They should consider videotaping or recording these live shows and releasing them with the notation: "This is what we meant to do."
It's an overworked cliche, but Costello truly brought the songs to life, showing a flair for physical and visual comedy that hasn't been a factor in his previous live performances.
The Brodsky Quartet gives him the perfect foil. The musicians are skilled enough to do virtually anything with their instruments — check Michael Thomas, the Jimi Hendrix of the violin, and his recreation of an air-raid siren on "I Thought I'd Write to Juliet." But they're loose enough to enjoy the trappings of a rock-style performance.
Whether Costello chooses to do any of this material in the future is debatable, but it was a singular experience to see it done properly, exactly the way it was recorded.
His vocal on "Swine" saw his voice soar to the point of breaking on the final line, reminiscent of his howled "String him up!" vocal on 1989's "Let Him Dangle."
On the other hand, Costello reigned in his vocal on the often-grating "This Offer Is Unrepeatable," rendering it much more palatable than on disc. His voice was perhaps strongest on "Jacksons, Monk And Rowe," written by Thomas about his childhood battles with his sister, quartet member Jacqueline Thomas.
"At least we do this here and not on Oprah," Costello quipped.
The four eclectic encores were not as riveting as the body of the show, despite Costello's reworking of his own "Almost Blue" and the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." The latter was meant to be a farce, and the audience laughed through the first verse. But by midsong, the simplicity of the lyrics and the force of the string treatment made it something more than that. What was apparently conceived as goof should be pursued by Costello and the quartet in the studio for a possible release.
The rest consisted of various covers, including Tom Waits' "More Than Rain" and one unrecorded Brodsky/Costello original, "King of the Unknown Sea." Eventually they ran out of material and performed "I Almost Had a Weakness" for a second time before leaving for good.