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Undaunted: After 35 Years in the Business, Elvis Costello Is Still Craving Challenges — Like Stravinsky 

Wednesday, Jan 14 2015

Elvis Costello is far too big and still too disgruntled to fit into a sound bite.

Which is good, because the chip remaining on the singer, songwriter, composer, and guitar player's tuneful shoulders is a better semi-conductor than silicon. Edgy energy has electrified his 35-plus years of music-making and tilted Costello along a career that includes induction (with The Attractions) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003; writing more than 500 original songs in multiple musical genres; collaborating with, among others, Burt Bacharach, The Brodsky Quartet, Paul McCartney, jazz master Allen Toussaint, choreographer Twyla Tharp and his wife, jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall; winning Oscar and Grammy nominations and numerous industry awards. And, next week, an upcoming performance with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Costello will appear as The Narrator in Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale), Jan. 16-18 at Davies Symphony Hall. Actor Malcolm McDowell will play The Devil. Also on the program, John Adams will conduct his work Grand Pianola Music with pianists Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin and vocalists Synergy Vocals.

It's not the first time Costello and Tilson Thomas' paths have crossed. In 2002, Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded Costello's full length Symphonic work, Il Sogno, on Deutsche Grammophon. Costello also appeared with the SFSO in his better-known capacity as a singer/songwriter/guitarist in 2006.

In an interview with SF Weekly one week before he returns to celebrate Tilson Thomas' 70th birthday (a special Jan. 15 performance hints at "surprise guests" that one can imagine might include Costello), he recalled the start of their friendship.

"Michael was asked to look at a ballet score I wrote," Costello says. "It didn't do what orchestral pieces generally do. It was an outline of episodic elements. I thought he'd toss it out of the window in 10 minutes."

Costello says he'd learned to notate music on an as-needed basis. Given projects that required it because the performers were classically trained, he'd sat down with pencil in hand — no trick-writing with software and an electric keyboard, or relying on his remarkable "play it by ear" history. "I learned to write music down for chamber groups and jazz orchestras," he says. "When I think I'm not equipped [with the knowledge or ability to handle a given project], I get the skills."

Instead of tossing his score aside, Tilson Thomas gave it credence by asking the then-fledgling classical composer specific questions, Costello says.

"He asked why I turned certain corners. The problem [with the score] was that if you took away the dancing action, it seemed static, so I rewrote large sections. He just circled places in the score; it was a truly creative critique."

Costello values Tilson Thomas's deep, nuanced approach. "He's a wonderful communicator," says Costello. "He has an opinion that's worth listening to for any piece of music."

Preparing for his turn as The Narrator, Costello says language, pauses, emphasis on specific words, and synchronicity with the other actors and musicians are all key to a convincing performance. Because the tale of a Faustian bargain, written by C.F. Ramuz and based on a Russian folk story, is a translation from its original language to English, he suggests the flow must be particularly well-modulated.

"[As a singer] I practice delivering a lot of syllables in time all the time. With this piece, I wait for cues and the nuances of the music, but mostly, I'm relying on Michael's direction."

Calling himself "the wild card" relative to McDowell's established acting chops, he says, "I imagine we'll rehearse, we won't be just going up there and sketching it through."

Having come off a recent Hollywood Bowl show that allowed only 18 minutes of rehearsal for a six-minute set, Costello promises that even the few hair-raising moments that happen with professionals will be kept to a minimum at Davies Hall because of the man at the center: "It's Michael," he says.

But also, it's Costello. Asked if he's ever been frightened by a project, he bristles at the idea, then describes what's at the heart of his music.

"I don't think the things I find myself doing involve risk. If you're not daunted by what you're doing, you're doing the wrong thing. Rock music can be just as challenging as anything. [As for collaborations], I've felt there's always been an invitation from someone. They say, 'Would you like to do this?' and I think, 'What do I have to lose?' I don't let what other people will think determine what I do. That's why I got into music in the first place, to make my own statement."

Collaborations have given him close to 400 songs and a trip to what he calls "the edges of music," where the mystery of human performance lights up a show with danger. He says the essential, forward thrust keeps music from becoming a tired ritual.

"We've all been in a concert hall and sensed the orchestra is playing out of obligation, but I don't think that happens in San Francisco very often," he says.

And it's unlikely to occur when Costello takes his no-holds philosophy onstage, looking for danger and blind to risk.

"You miss so many great experiences if you say 'No,'" he insists. "I don't agonize about how it might go wrong. There's so much more to be had from jumping in than from sitting and being afraid of it or worrying what other people will say about you."

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Lou Fancher

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