Washington Post, April 14, 2006

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Elvis Costello's (really) big band


Richard Harrington

When Chuck Berry tours, he always plays with local pickup bands.

On his current tour, Elvis Costello is playing with local pickup orchestras.

For instance: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will support Costello on Thursday at Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda and in concerts April 21 and 22 at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The program consists of an opening suite from Costello's first full-length orchestral work, the ballet score for Il Sogno, followed by a healthy sampling from his songbook, accompanied by the BSO and his longtime pianist, Steve Nieve. Costello describes the second half of the concert as "a pretty good balance between well-known songs in new arrangements and songs that are relatively unheard."

"It's a tall order to do such a concert with one rehearsal," Costello said recently, the morning after the tour opener in San Francisco with the San Francisco Symphony. "We had a ball! It's a lot of music to prepare," he admits, but thankfully, "when they're at the standard of the orchestras we're playing with, they obviously know what they're doing."

And, Costello adds, the music "really does happen in the moment, so anyone who thinks this takes us away from the feeling of spontaneity has no notion of what we're really doing."

What Costello is doing is what he has been doing, one way or another, since the late '70s when he was crafting some of the smartest, sharpest New Wave sounds coming out of England. It turned out simply to be the first wave for a musical chameleon and polymath who apparently has never met a genre he didn't want to explore and whose ambition, enthusiasm and curiosity have overridden any perceptions of failure, critical or commercial.

Costello's range is evident in both his solo recordings -- from rock and R&B to country and jazz -- and in his choice of collaborators on album-length projects, including the classical Brodsky Quartet, soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, the Mingus Big Band, pop legend Burt Bacharach and, next month's model, New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint.

The concert's opening suite, Il Sogno ("The Dream"), was commissioned in 2000 by the Italian dance company Aterballetto for a staging of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And one of the unrecorded songs that will be heard in the song segment is from "Secret Arias," an upcoming Costello-penned opera based on Hans Christian Andersen's infatuation with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. It was commissioned by Copenhagen's Operaen for the bicentenary of Andersen's birth.

If Costello were a computer, his favorite command would be "Refresh."

The orchestral approach of the upcoming concerts is akin to Costello's recent album, My Flame Burns Blue. That live career review was recorded at Holland's North Sea Jazz Festival in 2004 with the Metropole Orkest. Costello describes the Dutch ensemble as the only full-time jazz orchestra with a string section and classical woodwinds -- a unique mix of big band and orchestra and the perfect vehicle for a retrospective drawing on the accumulated scores of Costello works created for the concert stage in the past dozen years.

The Metropole Orkest, he says, is "obviously a different kind of orchestra, the most adept at playing the range of scores I have at my disposal now. They can turn their hand to things that come out of R&B and rock 'n' roll, like the re-arrangements of 'That's How You Got Killed Before' [originally recorded on a Dirty Dozen Brass Band album] and 'Episode of Blonde' that have a Latin element, or 'Clubland' and 'Watching the Detectives,' which have big-band elements in them."

"But they can also play a chamber song like 'Almost Blue,' which was originally for piano, bass and drums, was rearranged for the Brodsky Quartet and has gone through a number of editions for the Mingus Big Band and the Swedish Radio Symphony."

And, Costello adds, "we do this 'Watching the Detectives' arrangement, which is a desecration to people who love the tenseness of the original recording, which is easily my favorite from the first five years of my career. ... But the story that's going on, and the musical allusions in the original arrangements, relate very much to the realization of this song as an orchestral piece using the film music feeling and the swing rhythms of '50s detective shows. It's not like somebody else coming and making an inappropriate resetting of the pieces -- it's me having fun with my own music. You've got to stop being quite so rigid about things. I've played a lot of my songs in different arrangements, and it's all the more fun to do with such big resources behind you."

Costello being Costello, he notes that "you always get this tedious argument trotted out whenever anybody from rock 'n' roll ends up on the stage with a symphony orchestra that it must be something to do with self-aggrandizement. Obviously, there are so much easier ways to make yourself look clever than doing this, and it is a lot of work. But it's work you do with a joyful heart because there's nothing more exciting than imagining a sound in your head and then having it realized by 50 or 60 people."

With this sort of concert, Costello adds, "it would be foolhardy of me to go into one of those 'Pops Play Rock'-type scenarios [the BSO's is called 'Pop Rocks'] where I'm trying to get the orchestra to do something that they're not designed to do, like play 'Pump It Up.' It would be a joke, a one-time joke. I am aware the audience is coming, hopefully with a degree of curiosity and a degree of indulgence, that they want to hear what it's like to hear this music played in concert."

"I try to assemble the pieces into new stories rather than simply reciting those songs for the round of applause that their introduction triggers. I've always said there's really no point doing any songs for nostalgic reasons because it will never live up to the expectations; if you can't find a new way into it, it's better left alone."

Though Costello has had distinguished allies in writing charts and arrangements -- Bacharach, Nieve, Bill Frisell and Vince Mendoza among them -- he taught himself how to compose on paper, originally to create scores for small ensembles, beginning with the Brodsky Quartet on 1993's The Juliet Letters. Costello sensed that some of his ideas were getting lost because he couldn't communicate them properly. It was composer Michael McGlynn, founder of the Irish choral group Anuna, who encouraged Costello to learn musical notation.

"I had convinced myself I couldn't understand it," Costello recalls, "and given that I had written 200 songs, I convinced myself I didn't need to understand it. Michael sat down and patiently explained what was causing the mental block that I had about it at about the time that I began working with the Brodsky Quartet. And within six months, I had proceeded from not being able to write any kind of music to writing full-part arrangements. Obviously it was all in my head waiting to come out. Once I learned how to do it, I found it more satisfying and in no way an inhibition to spontaneity or the ability to pick up a guitar and flesh out some songs I wrote."

By the time Costello got to Il Sogno, he was able to craft its 200-page score by himself (over 10 weeks). Composing turned out to be nothing like he had imagined in his 1991 song "Couldn't Call It Unexpected, No. 4," where the protagonist calls himself "the lucky goon who composes this tune from birds arranged on the high wire."

"A fanciful line, because when I wrote that I couldn't do it," Costello laughs. And one inspired by a famous scene in "Dumbo" featuring musical crows on a telephone wire. "I've always loved that image," says Costello, adding, "That whole song's about faith, and I think sometimes I have a slightly irrational faith in music, that it will work out and people will understand your intentions in the long run.

"If they want to throw rocks at it, fine," he says of his critics. "I find that songs that are not completely understood or appreciated in the moment that you do them, maybe you didn't make your intentions clear, maybe you covered them up following an instinct about the presentation which turns out to have served your purposes less well than you thought at first. That's why it's often good to go back to a song and take it back to the simplest accompaniment and play it again; that's what I do in concert a lot [with Nieve], or in this case [with an orchestra]."

Costello's next album, The River in Reverse, due in May, is more traditionally structured, a New Orleans tribute and collaboration with Toussaint. It will feature a handful of Toussaint classics, some with new words by Costello, and new songs from Costello in response to the legacy of Hurricane Katrina in that region. Toussaint, a legendary producer as well as songwriter, did the arrangements, plays piano and contributed his guitarist and horn section. Nieve plays organ, and Costello's Imposters provide the rhythm section. Costello wrote the title track Sept. 24 and performed it that night at the Hurricane Katrina relief concert Parting the Waters in New York City. Costello's and Toussaint's bands will tour together this summer, including a June 15 date at Wolf Trap.

Elvis Costello and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore, April 21 and 22 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore Sounds like: Every day, he writes the songbook, and for these concerts, Costello will be revisiting, reviving and reimagining various chapters and verses, bridging the distinctions with his edgy crooning and lush orchestrations.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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The Washington Post, April 14, 2006


Richard Harrington previews Elvis Costello with Steve Nieve and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Thursday, April 20, Strathmore Hall, Rockville, MD, and Friday, April 21 and Saturday April 22, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD.


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