It is no small measure of my devotion that I undertook a 296-mile round trip (on a week night, and in dress clothes, no less) to watch Elvis Costello make his debut performance with the Boston Pops Orchestra on Wednesday evening as that venerable institution launched its 2006 season with, among other things, a suite from Costello’s first classical oeuvre, Il Sogno. Champagne receptions held on each level of Symphony Hall and attended by a mixture of Costello fans in various styles of attire and Pops regulars in their evening finery gave the sold-out evening an air of festivity right from the start.
From our “cheap” seats in the first balcony, we could look down on the well-heeled patrons below, sitting at tables and sipping champagne served by a wait staff (the opening of the season is a benefit, and as such, the orchestra-level seats were priced well beyond the means of this working woman). Accustomed as I am to seeing Elvis perform in venues where fans consume far too much beer in plastic cups, the sense of dislocation was jarring.
After a rousing opening that consisted of a cinematic “Postcard to Boston” set to the musical accompaniment of John Williams’ “A Hymn to New England,” the orchestra got down to business with von Suppé’s “Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna” followed by a suite from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Mendelssohn selection was significant because it preceded the first real highlight of the evening, which was a suite from Il Sogno, Costello’s own interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, which was commissioned in 2000 by an Italian ballet company. I don’t know enough about classical music from a technical standpoint to really review this piece, but I know that I enjoyed listening to it. It has a jazz-influenced, contemporary feel, and attests to Costello’s seriousness as a composer of something other than his signature well-crafted and literate pop songs.
Joined by long-time collaborator and Attractions/Imposters pianist Steve Nieve, Costello rounded out the program with a nine-song set that proved that he is well on his way to enjoying a second career that often bears little resemblance to the one in which he first made his reputation. The ‘angry young man’ and sometimes belligerent rocker that came to prominence in the late ‘70s has given way to a gracious performer whose vocal talents are nothing short of stunning given the right choice of material. And the material he chose last night made excellent use of the assembled orchestra, including as it did two of his collaborations with Burt Bacharach, “God Give Me Strength” and “I Still Have That Other Girl”, both of which showed off his voice (which is sometimes surprising in its range) to great effect.
Longtime fans who have been paying attention know that Costello’s eclectic musical appetites are continually leading him in new directions, and his output in the last couple of years has been noteworthy for its breadth. In addition to Il Sogno, he has released North, an album of quiet jazz ballads, and The Delivery Man, a collection of country-tinged roadhouse rockers. Last month he released My Flame Burns Blue, a live recording made with the Metropole Orkest at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2004. This last album gives a good feel for what really works in his current jazz-flavored repertoire, and some of it was on display in last night’s program. The Pops performance included “My Flame Burns Blue” (music by Billy Strayhorn, lyrics by Elvis Costello), “Watching the Detectives” done up in a fast arrangement that seems to have the singer working hard to get all the words in and bears but a passing resemblance to the original, and “Hora Decubitus” (music by Charles Mingus, lyrics by Elvis Costello).
Earlier in his career Costello could often be heard spitting and snarling and biting off the ends of his sometimes breathless phrases, but this newer repertoire finds him caressing the lyrics and taking his time with them. He seems much more willing to explore the emotional terrain of each song. His distinctive voice is getting better with age, and if he chooses to become his generation’s Sinatra (but with songwriting chops second to none), I daresay the audiences will approve. If the reception he got in Boston is any indication, there’s a whole new group of fans out there who might not ever have listened to This Year’s Model or Blood and Chocolate, but who like this jazz singer with the interesting voice a whole lot.