Palm Beach Post, January 9, 2005

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Is Elvis Costello the future of new classical music?


Greg Stepanich

I've heard plenty of new classical music over the past 20 years and written about a good deal of it, and I have to say that most of it was pretty mediocre — when it wasn't downright bad.

One of the few pieces I can recall to have lived up partly to its hype was the First Symphony of John Corigliano, a difficult, uncompromising but compelling piece that I first heard in its great Chicago Symphony recording, and then live in a blazing performance by the Florida Philharmonic under James Judd.

Although it had an au courant hook in its dedication to AIDS victims, as well as a touch of the cinema in its use of a disembodied, ghostly echo of the Albeniz Tango in D, the symphony didn't need any gimmicks: It was, and is, a fine piece of American classical composition.

But it's not just classical composers who dream of adding something of significance to the repertory. Since George Gershwin, writers of commercial popular music have tried to stretch their creative wings and essay a different aspect of their art.

In Gershwin's day, as American popular music began its rise to global domination, classical composers such as Kurt Weill and Vernon Duke were turning their backs on symphonies and string quartets and writing only for film and Broadway.

Pop composers tried to go the other way, with Richard Rodgers taking on Victory at Sea and a young Cole Porter writing a ballet score in 1923 called Within the Quota that a writer noted as one of the first treatments in the literature of "symphonic jazz."

In more recent times, Paul McCartney has cranked out, with much help, a few classical pieces including Standing Stone, a large oratorio; Billy Joel has issued an attractive album (Fantasies and Delusions) of 19th century-style classical piano pieces (the CD's graphic design borrowed the look of the yellow G. Schirmer volumes with which all American piano students are familiar); and Elvis Costello has been working on several classical projects for some time, including a song cycle with string quartet called Three Distracted Women.

Costello's latest venture is a work for ballet called Il Sogno (The Dream), based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and commissioned by an Italian dance company called Aterballetto. The work has gotten mixed reviews, and here at The Post, we ran a fairly negative brief about it when the CD of Costello's score was released back in September.

I picked up the disc a couple of weeks ago (it features the London Symphony under part-time Miamian Michael Tilson Thomas) and I've been studying it with some interest. Looked at one way, it's an incoherent hodgepodge of non-related styles that does not illustrate the action of Shakespeare's play so much as it does the wide range of Costello's listening habits.

But considered from a different angle, Il Sogno points the way toward a successful path for contemporary classical music, unlike the work of the other two rockers. I found McCartney's Standing Stone unpersuasive except for the closing choral song; and while much of Joel's solo piano music is quite beautiful, it's also deeply derivative, and of Chopin in particular. That doesn't make the music meritless; it only means it's music of the past, no matter how lovely it is.

At this point, someone is likely to say, 'Ah, but all classical music is music of the past.' Not so. What classical music has been waiting for is a composer with a sufficiently original voice who can bring together the various influences of his or her day and construct a vital message for today's audience. I don't see how any composer can build a voice that will sound relevant without taking into account the language of popular music, and I think the composer who can do that truly will be someone to be reckoned with.

Costello isn't quite there, but he's got potential.

It's critical to note that he wrote the score himself, orchestrations and all, without any assistance. Whereas McCartney refuses to learn notation on the superstitious grounds that it would make his talent evaporate, Costello simply buckled down and learned how to read and write music about 10 years ago. It's stalled his creativity not one bit; it has instead given him new avenues to explore.

Still, Il Sogno is a deeply frustrating score to listen to. There are passages in which Costello's music sounds congruent with that of 20th-century British classical composition, such as the material describing the fairy realm (Oberon and Titania) that opens Act II of the ballet.

But no sooner does a gentle oboe tune ripen in the hands of the clarinet and the violins then Costello steps back, in an ostensible bid to describe the two fairy monarchs arguing, and writes an egregiously bad section of lame-o jazz riffs over what sounds like a Music for Young Orchestras arrangement of On Broadway.

He does the same thing earlier in the section titled The State of Affairs. He writes a fanfare-like passage that has an intriguing flavor of rock, then a Shostakovich-like pattern separated by a snare drum, and then, sadly, a few seconds of retro-'50s cool jazz, complete with vibes and trap set.

Much better are pieces like Oberon Humbled, a reflective piece of winding, soft melody interrupted in the middle by an echo of a heavy dance beat, but this comes across as logical, not as a piece of inserted incongruity designed to comfort the fears of worried pop fans who might otherwise think their boy Elvis has gone over to the tuxedoed dark side.

The point of all this analysis is simply this: Elvis Costello is probably quite capable of coming up with a much better orchestral work than Il Sogno. He's got a good ear for color, and he's able to write decent themes that sound orchestral rather than like pop tunes wearing fancy clothes.

On the downside, he's too short-winded a melodist to construct a powerful piece of symphonic argument at this point, and much of his ballet score suffers from a lack of energy that leaves listeners waiting for the next tune to turn up.

But Costello is closer to the future of classical composition than many of his peers. If he's able to take his gifts and find his classical voice with them, and yet remain recognizably our Declan, then he will be one of the very few composers other than Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein to comfortably, convincingly, sit on both sides of the aisle.

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Palm Beach Post, January 9, 2005


Greg Stepanich reviews Il Sogno


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