Elvis Costello's latest adventure: Satanic role with San Francisco Symphony

San Jose Mercury News: Richard Scheinin: 12th January 2015

This weekend, Elvis Costello will talk about the devil at Davies Symphony Hall.

Have we got your attention?

It's something new, even for Costello, the rocker whose collaborations are as numerous as they are unpredictable. His latest engagement -- narrating composer Igor Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du soldat" ("The Soldier's Tale"), about a Faustian bargain -- will pair him with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, members of the San Francisco Symphony and the distinguished British actor Malcolm McDowell.

"It's an incredible amount of stuff that I've stumbled into," Costello says during a phone interview from his home in New York City, where he lives with his wife, Diana Krall, the jazz singer and pianist who is one of his many musical partners.

He has been crossing party lines for much of his career, working with Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney, choreographer Twyla Tharp and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, Lucinda Williams and the Roots, Tony Bennett and George Jones, the Royal Danish Opera and the London Symphony Orchestra. Not to mention Tilson Thomas, whom he regards as a friend and mentor.

"It's really just wanting to hear different sounds," he explains, shrugging it all off. In 1976, as a punkish New Waver in London, he titled his first album "My Aim Is True," and that would seem to have remained his motto through the decades -- to stay true to his musical tastes and intuitions. He's smart and curious, fun to talk to, an outside-the-box character.

Which is why Costello, 60, will be at Davies Symphony Hall, narrating the story of a poor soldier who trades his violin -- his soul, basically -- to the devil, and loses everything that matters in the bargain. His bride, his freedom, a lucky medallion: All are lost in "L'Histoire," Stravinsky's musical setting of a Russian folk tale, which Costello will narrate three times in performances with Tilson Thomas, seven musicians and a small troupe of actors featuring McDowell as the Devil.

"He's a risk taker," Bacharach once said of Costello, with whom he recorded the album "Painted from Memory" in 1998. Their songs, about marriage and divorce, are urbane and literate, charting the course of emotional states, like good musical theater. "The guy simply won't be bound to one kind of music, nor should he be. He's always investigating because he can."

"Outside the box? What box?" says von Otter, the Swedish mezzo, when asked to describe Costello and their collaboration on the 2001 album "For the Stars." It treats compositions by Costello, McCartney, Bacharach, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson and others as a new breed of art song. Von Otter (who, coincidentally, performs her own sold-out recital Sunday in San Francisco at St. Mark's Lutheran Church), writes in an email, "If you have a brain and the right musical chips in it, then there are countless doors to open.... He has an energy and a curiosity that are hard to beat."

Still, Elvis Costello narrating a Russian folk tale set to Stravinsky's lean, rhythmically propulsive score from 1918, as interpreted by Tilson Thomas?

He laughs. "This is what I do for a living. I spill out a lot of words in rhythm. And I'm not even required to sing here -- which some people might be relieved to hear."

More than a decade ago, he was introduced to Tilson Thomas by Christopher Robertson, a recording industry executive. Costello was looking for help with "Il Sogno," his ballet score, which was inspired by Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It had been commissioned by a dance company in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Unfortunately, Costello had "sat wincing" through early performances by a regional Italian orchestra. He compares that ensemble to the one in film director Federico Fellini's "Prova d'orchestra" ("Orchestra Rehearsal"), a comedy about an ensemble whose members go on strike against their conductor. Contributing to the confusion, Costello admits, was the fact of his being a novice at orchestral composition. His score contained "fundamental blunders."

A sympathetic mentor

Yet Tilson Thomas, a fan, invited Costello to his home to have a look at "Il Sogno" and make suggestions: "He took it seriously," Costello says, still surprised. "He didn't condescend to me that 'obviously you've made these very simple errors of communication that you wouldn't have made had you been properly trained.' Instead he'd say, 'Well, what's happening in these bars over here? And what do you intend to happen over there?'

"And he's great company. He sat me down and told me stories about conducting gigantic Mahler symphonies and about working with James Brown. For me, Michael took on the role of a mentor in the proper sense, which doesn't really exist in rock 'n' roll. You usually want to do down" -- as in, get the better of -- "the person who came before you."

In the end, the hour-long, 200-page score came off snazzily, with misty atmospherics and real spirit. You can hear Costllo's love of Debussy's refinement and Stravinsky's puckishness in "Il Sogno." It has good, solid Costello-ish melodies, too.

Tilson Thomas, who recorded the piece with the London Symphony Orchestra, was impressed. In 2004, after the album's release on the Deutsche Grammophon label, he spoke to this writer about Costello's "very musical mind." He said, "And the thing that most impressed me is that he was actually writing this piece with a pencil and really trying to understand every note and how it all works. I really liked his whole feeling of curiosity about music.... It's quite far out there in terms of the tonalities. It's pastel-colored, and really quite remarkable."

Born Declan Patrick MacManus, Costello grew up in London. His father, Ross MacManus, "was a bebop trumpet player before he became a dance band singer," says Costello. "Like a lot of people, he couldn't make a living playing the music he loved. But he became a singer, and he had a fairly successful career in the dance hall and on the radio. So that exposed me to a lot of music that my pocket full of change couldn't buy."

Ross MacManus even sang some of Bacharach's songs. You can draw the connection, Costello says.

His mother, Lilian, a jazz fan, worked in a record shop and sold "smuggled copies" -- brought to her by a merchant seaman friend -- of albums by American bebop pianist Lennie Tristano. Some featured saxophonist Lee Konitz -- who recorded a gorgeously pared down, dry martini solo on Costello's "Someone Took the Words Away," a love song on his 2003 album "North."

At the recording session, he asked Konitz to sign the song's lead sheet for his mother: "He wrote, 'Lilian. Thank you. Lee.' Ever economical! It was a lovely connection."

A classical connection

Growing up, Costello also was taken to classical concerts. A family friend who worked for a record company gave him classical EPs -- "Grieg, Mozart, the Brandenburg Concertos" -- that he alternated with Tristano and a variety of other music on the family record player. "I grew up listening to all those records," he says. "I didn't understand them when I was a kid, but there's something about having records. It's like having books on a shelf. You might not understand every word of them, but perhaps in time you will. I try to do something like this with my young sons, showing them the Marx Brothers and old black and white films.... I think it all accumulates."

The point is that by the time Costello released his album "Imperial Bedroom" in 1983, some of his fans may have been surprised by his seemingly new fascination with classic popular song-craft -- the craftsmanship of Cole Porter, say, or Rodgers and Hart. But Costello knew that his fascination was deep-seated. (He had even recorded "My Funny Valentine" as the B-side of a single in 1978.)

He still didn't know how to notate music. But by the time of his 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet -- the British string quartet with which he recorded "The Juliet Letters" -- that was changing. A composer named Michael McGlynn helped push him through his mental block, and Costello, within six months, was writing out full-part arrangements.

Addicted to music

He had been immersing himself in London's classical music scene, too, sometimes going out five or six nights a week. There was Berlioz: He heard von Otter in the opera "The Damnation of Faust." There was Brahms: "I guess it was like an addiction. It got to be like I had to hear the next installment. There was a German pianist playing every piece by Brahms; I went every night." There was Mozart: "wildly great versions with symphony orchestras."

Mozart "touched his heart" and still does: "How did he write those tunes? Because at some level, that's what they are, tunes."

In recent years, Costello has sung his own tunes with full symphonic backing in major concert halls, often using his own arrangements for 50 or more musicians. When he joins Tilson Thomas on stage this weekend, he will be adding to this history.

"You've got to press on for the beauty," he says. "I've stood in front of some of the best orchestras in the world, including the San Francisco Symphony, and I know what it feels like to be inside that body of sound. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.... So this is another one of those magical things. It's a magical experience. Let's do it right."

 

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) leads the San Francisco
Symphony (SFS) in performances of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The
Soldier’s Tale) with Elvis Costello as narrator and actor Malcolm
McDowell as the devil, January 16-18, 2015 at Davies Symphony Hall.
Tickets on sale now.