I went on Saturday night to hear the North American premiere of Il Sogno, Elvis Costello‘s first full-length orchestral work. It’s a ballet score based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed in 2000 for an Italian dance troupe, and the Brooklyn Phiharmonic performed it as the climax of a three-night Costello mini-festival presented by the Lincoln Center Festival.
Though I’m a Costello fan, I confess to having had a small critical chip on my shoulder. But as I reported in this morning’s Washington Post, Il Sogno deserves to be taken seriously:
Not only did Costello write it without assistance, he orchestrated it as well, and though the Brooklyn Philharmonic, conducted by Brad Lubman, was conspicuously underrehearsed, the performance was decent enough to leave no doubt that Costello knows what he’s doing. The scoring isn’t perfect — the middle register is cluttered and thick-sounding at times, and the vibraphone is used to sugary excess — but it’s perfectly competent.
That alone made my jaw drop. Even Duke Ellington relied on professional orchestrators when writing for symphony orchestra, while Paul McCartney hired so many collaborators to help him produce the embarrassingly bloated “Standing Stone” that I described it at the time of its 1997 premiere as “the first as-told-to symphony.” What’s more, “Il Sogno” (“The Dream” in Italian), though it rambles a bit, is more than just a long string of songlike cameos placed end to end: Costello has channeled his thematic material into simple, formal structures that he uses in the disciplined manner of a bona fide classical composer….
It’s not cut-rate Prokofiev or Bernstein, but a lively, ingratiating piece of mainstream modernism, with decorous snippets of symphonic rock and jazz thrown in from time to time to spice things up. If anything, it’s too polite: Costello was clearly on his best musical behavior when he wrote it, and I’m sure he felt he had something to prove to all the “legit” musicians who took it for granted that no mere rock star could bring off so ambitious an undertaking….
Mind you, Costello doesn’t need to write large-scale orchestral works to be taken seriously as an artist. Rock has produced no better songwriter. But if he really wants to set up shop as a part-time classical composer, he’ll need to polish his craft still further. After the unexpected success of “Rhapsody in Blue,” Gershwin toiled for 11 years and ended up with “Porgy and Bess.” Is Costello in it for the long haul? Or will “Il Sogno” turn out to be a fluke? I hope not.
Read the whole thing here.
UPDATE: Alex Ross has a fascinatingly different take on Il Sogno. You can tell from reading our pieces side by side that we were, as the saying goes, at the same concert–only we didn’t come to the same conclusions.