No rock musician can aspire to serious auteur status these days, it seems, without undertaking a big classical composition — oratorio, opera, symphony, what have you. The only catch is that most of them haven't a clue how to go about it.
Elvis Costello does.
Il Sogno ("The Dream"), an evening-length ballet score based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is the one product of this odd recent trend that's actually worth the staff paper it's written on.
This is no mere exercise in reverse slumming. It's an expansive, colorful and often striking creation, done with all the imaginative flair and restless precision of Costello's rock efforts. And on the Deutsche Grammophon recording that hits stores today, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, the various episodes of Costello's score sparkle and shine like the pages of a glossily illustrated book of fairy tales.
Il Sogno premiered in Bologna in 2000 with choreography by Mauro Bigonzetti, but it wasn't until last year that Costello — evidently with an assist from Thomas — reworked the score into a stand-alone concert piece, introduced in July at a multipronged Costellofest at New York's Lincoln Center.
As with any concert suite derived from a ballet score, the result is episodic, a loosely connected series of vignettes designed to illustrate various characters and incidents in the theatrical scenario. And although it helps to know which music corresponds to what, Costello's melodic and instrumental ingenuity are enough to let the work stand alone.
The range of stylistic references is broad, extending from bouncy or lushly scored orchestral episodes a la Prokofiev (the feel of the thing, if not the musical specifics, often brings Romeo and Juliet to mind) to the brassy blare of Bernstein's Broadway writing. In a handful of numbers, Costello lays down a groove and then hands the reins to soprano saxophonist John Harle, whose urgent, squawky improvisations work alchemy with simple materials.
The best of Costello's numbers do just what they're meant to do by conjuring up a vivid image of their subjects — a spare, elusive flutter for Puck or a magical vibraphone-led lullaby for Titania and Bottom's enchanted sleep. Others cram too much disparate material into a single segment.
What's most striking, though, is Costello's command of the orchestra. Il Sogno alternates between richly idiomatic traditional sonorities and skillful grafts from elsewhere, including a jazz band and the tinkly, percussive sound of the cimbalom. If this is really just scoring by ear, Costello's untutored facility is prodigious.
But then, it always has been. From the beginning of his career, Costello has been a consummate classicist, less interested in innovation than in mastering and refining an ever-wider range of musical languages — from punk rock to country, from pop ballads to art songs. There was no reason to expect anything less from him in this new arena.