I really wanted to see Elvis Costello with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I’ve long admired his work, as he combines a wonderful whimsical lyric and vocal style, with exceptional melodies. Throughout his career, I’ve been impressed with the obvious highlights, including “Olivers Army” (which actually used the piano line from Dancing Queen”), the soulful country of “Good Year For The Roses”, “Every Day I Write The Book” (with its early Charles and Diana in divorce mode video), through to his more recent collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Sophie van Otter. I really like Elvis Costello.
But to be totally and brutally honest I was disappointed with last night’s performance with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra because I didn’t really think he was all that engaged with either the work or with the audience. The phrase, perhaps unfairly, that both Damien and I used was “going through the motions”.
Early in the piece, Costello appeared on stage to explain the first half of the evening would be a piece he composed for a French (or was it Italian?) dance intepretation of a Shakespearean work. The work began, and it was pretty interesting musically and I was genuinely excited. Although Costello had explained the different musical motifs and how they related to the work, after a while it all began to sound like a movie soundtrack, like an ipod on shuffle, not really coming to any real conclusion. The audience was non-plussed, clapping politely at the end. I noticed a prominent Australian and his wife, both great consumers of the arts, politely leave at the end of intermission, reflecting what I thought was a non-plussed mood in the theatre.
In the second half Costello emerged to sing many of his favourite songs with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. With one or two exceptions where he sang familiar works, he stuck to the lesser known works, thereby disappointing a large section of the audience. Yeh, he did Veronica and yeh, he did an interesting version of Oliver’s Army, but that was about it. The rest of the works were unfamiliar, often obscure, songs he had written for other people, often sung by Costello in an uninterested, dead pan manner. He only really “came to life” when he started singing the works with Bacharach – and my god, he SANG – or in songs like “She”. The last three or four songs were really good, really dramatic and heartfelt, which made both Damo and I wonder why he hadn’t been like that earlier in the night.
He probably did too many encores (I think it was four) when the crowd wasn’t really demanding it. I also think the limited standing ovation (only a small percentage of the eahtre) was probably more in recognition of previous works than last night’s performance. Bit sad, really.