Elvis Costello only arrived in Minneapolis yesterday for his two-night stand at Orchestra Hall, which started last night and finishes tonight. This means he and the orchestra didn't rehearse together until yesterday afternoon, which may account for the lack of cohesion between Costello and the orchestra, as well as the uncomfortable feeling that this experiment in crossover music-making wasn’t working out quite as well as the audience, or the performers, might have hoped.
The concept of seeing a rock icon venture into classical composition is undeniably exciting. Costello is a Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated legend who has conquered punk, pop, and alt-country, and dabbled in many other genres in his thirty-year music career. In 2004, he released his Il Sogno album, an orchestral piece originally written as a ballet score.
Last night, Costello appeared on Orchestra Hall's stage to introduce a suite from Il Sogno. Clad in a classic black suit, trademark black-framed eyeglasses and bolo tie, he said, "In my version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck is a jazz fairy." Then he exited stage right, and the acclaimed jazz pianist Alan Broadbent conducted the Minnesota Orchestra in several selections from Il Sogno, jumping from a stately court bravado one minute to a funky peasant swagger the next.
Costello told Rolling Stone in 2004 that, "Structure should be liberating, not confining," a comment that sounds ironic given that last night’s structure felt so restrictive and forced.
After about twenty minutes of Il Sogno, Costello re-emerged and opened the next part of the show with "All This Useless Beauty," singing loudly—too loudly—while strumming an acoustic guitar. From there in on out, the majority of the show was pop songs arranged for orchestra. When the soft strings backed him, it was almost operatic, but the continual trade-off between Costello's solo work and an entire orchestra was jarring.
During the second song, "Still Too Soon to Know," it was apparent that Costello’s voice was off-pitch at times (he later commented on having a "croaky" voice due to spending time in a snowstorm in Buffalo, New York). Without a rock band behind him, Costello was exposed. And without a rock audience reflecting his energy, he seemed self-conscious and even a little anxious at times.
That doesn't necessarily mean the audience didn't appreciate the music, however. This was an Orchestra Hall audience—refined, respectful, awaiting their time to applaud. And the crowd did applaud, often. Costello even received a couple standing ovations after the last song and during the encore.
The Costello arrangements for the performance—including that of his wife Diana Krall's song "The Girl in the Other Room," (which Costello co-wrote)—should have been moving. Instead, Costello struck awkward poses—hand extended with palm facing the audience, eyebrows raised, staring at the ceiling—that appeared to trivialize the work of the orchestra seated behind him. Which raises the question: If he's not buying it, why should we?
In contrast, the final song of the first set was a cohesive, moving arrangement by Richard Harvey that was actually written for an orchestra.
The second half brought the arrival of pianist Steve Nieve, a longtime Costello collaborator. Nieve's energetic playing brought a much-needed jolt to the show right away during their first tune, "Veronica."
Costello's song "Scarlet Tide," which was nominated for an Oscar for Alison Krauss's performance of it on the movie Cold Mountain, brought the most intense moment of the evening. During his introduction to the song, Costello explained that it is a song of a war widow, and proclaimed that questioning authority is the act of a patriot, not a traitor. This provoked huge applause and hollers, and when he sang, "and bring the boys back home," another round of applause rolled through the concert hall.
To close the second set, and to open the encore, Costello performed two selections from his Painted from Memory collaboration with Burt Bacharach—"God Give Me Strength" and "I Still Have That Other Girl." These were easily the highlights of the evening. If the Il Sogno pieces were anticlimactic, the Bacharach pieces were cathartic.
After encore song No. 2, "Accidents Will Happen," Costello sang his final tune. Singing all night into a microphone that amplified his already-loud voice to volumes that overshadowed an entire orchestra (a problem amplified performers often have in Orchestra Hall), Costello went mikeless for "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4." It was during this last song that he walked offstage and into the aisles, prompting the crowd to hum along with him. "Just the ladies," he instructed. Then, "Just the boys."
In that same Rolling Stone interview from 2004, David Fricke asked Costello who he is making records for. His answer was simple: "Anyone who will listen." That may be a respectable, unpretentious attitude, but it raises more questions than it answers, and I definitely felt that same confused message last night.
Elvis Costello performs again Saturday with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall.