As a songwriter, Elvis Costello is adept at finding musical ideas to sketch a mood. As an orchestral concert composer, he is not quite as good at following them through, giving them continuation, further life and a sense of structure over time. Thus the suite from Il Sogno, his orchestral ballet score for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, fleshed out the characters of the drama with recognisable musical symbols — noble horns and bright winds for the court, folk-like lumbering and gawky tubas for the mechanicals, and Costello twist- hot jazz licks for the fairies.
The harmonies, often built from the opening tritone, had unity and cohesion but the melodic ideas tended to be stated and left out to dry, so that, without a story line, the music became bitty, directionless, and, at 50 minutes, rather long.
Part of the problem was the determination of the conductor, Alan Broadbent, and the Sydney Symphony to make the performance slapdash. The intonation in Costello's impressionist string harmonies and in the woodwind was often poor and the ensemble ragged. Broadbent's expertise lay more in the song accompaniments of the second half, and the first half needed someone with the capacity to mould a fully orchestral work.
Costello's part writing may sometimes have been infelicitous: the solo trumpet, for example, was overused. But for a top-billed festival concert, the Sydney Symphony should have aspired to the professionalism of the London Symphony's recording of this work. They are paid enough to play better than this.
I know how the Sydney Symphony should sound but not how Costello should sound and was unsure how much his strained pitch and hoarseness in the song arrangements which made up the second half were due to end-of-tour vocal fatigue and how much they were the musical equivalent of his designer stubble.
It was in the duets between Costello and pianist Steve Nieve, and in the jazz breaks from the orchestra (Margery Smith: saxophone, John Foster: trumpet, Scott Kinmont: trombone) that the energy started to kindle. Costello's words, abounding in parody, were witty though sometimes difficult to catch, but for this capacity crowd of fans his rasping delivery well beguiled the heavy gait of night.