Elvis Costello looks strangely at home in a tuxedo.
Posing jauntily at the front of the stage in Davies Symphony Hall on Monday night, with the San Francisco Symphony arrayed behind him, the brilliant rock songsmith turned musical omnivore gave his best impression of a finger-popping jazz stylist.
The one thing missing was a martini glass — and that, as he pointed out to the appreciative audience, was only because he'd quit drinking.
Monday's concert, which opened with excerpts from Costello's recent ballet score Il Sogno, was merely the latest chapter in his apparent campaign to put his mark on every available musical genre, from punk and country to classical and jazz.
He can do it, too. From the moment he burst onto the music scene in 1977 as a purveyor of particularly sophisticated new wave music, Costello was always a classicist in the broadest sense. We just didn't know it yet.
The intervening years have made it clear, though, and in his latest incarnation as a soigne balladeer, Costello has fused his taste for intricate, emotionally fraught lyrics with a tender melodic vein. It suits him down to the ground.
The second half of the program, with Alan Broadbent conducting the Symphony and Costello's longtime collaborator Steve Nieve contributing jangly piano accompaniments, drew together an array of new material and old standards rethought (many of the songs are documented on his new Deutsche Grammophon release, My Flame Burns Blue).
They included a posthumous collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, in which Costello fitted new lyrics to compositions by the late jazz master — "Hora Decubitus" — a similar co-creation with Charles Mingus was unfortunately left off the set list — and a pair of songs written with Burt Bacharach.
Costello also reached into his earlier cross-genre projects, including "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" from The Juliet Letters, his 1993 song cycle with string quartet, and the songs he wrote more recently for the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.
The predominant mood tended to be slow and torchy; a few more up-tempo numbers might have enlivened the proceedings a bit. But the combination of lush orchestration and Costello's distinctive vocal style, at once abrasive and tender, made for a number of especially poignant offerings.
Just as he did in his rock days, Costello put his vocal limitations to expressive use. The strained top notes and the vocal meandering that often precedes his settling on a particular pitch emerge as tokens of emotional urgency or a broken heart or whatever the song may call for.
And like all great music, Costello's work proves capable of endless reinvention and reinterpretation. The high point of Monday's show was a new version of "Watching the Detectives," redone to mirror the brassy, Henry Mancini-esque soundtrack that might have accompanied the TV cop show invoked by the song's lyrics and graced by dynamic solos from saxophonist Mary Fettig and trumpeter Glenn Fischthal.
Other old favorites resurfaced as well. "Almost Blue," the smoky ballad that remains one of Costello's most hauntingly perfect creations, sounded as wrenching as ever, and "Alison" responded nicely to the orchestral backing.
Il Sogno, written for a treatment of A Midsummer Night's Dream by the Italian dance company Aterballetto, is a flashy, entertaining collection of illustrative segments that don't stand entirely well on their own. The recent recording, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, puts a zippy sheen on the music that allows its pleasures — punchy melodies and a number of piquant instrumental combinations — to come to the fore.
But to judge from Monday's awkward performances, the Symphony members seemed to be sight-reading, and Broadbent's stiff, fussy conducting didn't help hold things together. The result was a few splendid moments separated by long stretches.