Friday, September 01, 2006

Elvis Costello's 'Il Sogno', from the inside.

NOTE: As I mention in a subsequent post, all this is ranting and based on a single rehearsal, so keep a grain of salt handy. Thanks.

The dorkestra in which I play is doing a suite from Elvis Costello's ballet 'Il Sogno' for this season's first concert. The original plan was to do the Prestigious West Coast Premier of the full ballet, but apparently American Music Publishers or DG or some other copyright holder doesn't want smaller (i.e. unfamous) orchestras doing the full piece yet and wouldn't rent out the full score for another year...or something. Management only gave us a hazy, slightly shamefaced version of the details.

As it turns out, being forced to content outselves with the suite is no great loss, as the overriding feeling in rehearsal has been 'If these are the highlights, what did they leave out?'

'Il Sogno' got a 10 out of 10 at Classics Today, a review site I usually find to be pretty good. You can see David Hurwitz's review right here.

I can't help but think that Mr. Hurwitz would have a lower opinion of the music if he were forced to rehearse it.

You see, the parts are a nightmare. I can only imagine that they were intended as draft/working copies for the first production and then never corrected.

They are, one might say, conceptually flawed. Costello, for reasons known only to himself, insists on nonsense like repeating a passage five times, adding various melodies and sections with each repetition- the sort of thing you might do in a jazz chart. Nobody can tell why he notates like this with a full orchestra. Saving paper maybe? A bar rest with a '16' above it is easier for an orchestra to digest than four bars with a repeat sign and PLAY X5 above it- the idea being that you let these bars go by four times and then you get to play your bit. Needless to say, this often causes confusion since a notation like that can just as easily be interpreted as: 'I play this five times?' On top of this are the little typographical problems: repeats have opening brackets but no closing brackets, there are no cues whatsoever except for a single ambigious violin line in the set drum part, dynamics are nonexistent (or pop up at random), the piece begins with percussion notation that doesn't bother to indicate which instrument is intended and -- and this is the most frustrating for the percussion section -- the percussion parts appear to have been laid out by idiots.

There's no rhyme or reason to the percussion flow- it calls for four players, and then randomly assigns instruments among them. This means I have to keep two or three parts open on my stand but, stupidly, it's hardly even an issue since most movements are tacet (although fully notated with bars of rests, bizarrely). So, I play snare drum for a Movement A in Perc Part 1 during which Perc Part 2 is tacet, and then play the snare in Movement B in Perc Part 2 during which Perc Part 1 is tacet. And during both movements, of course, the set drum player is sitting there in front of his own snare drum doing nothing. It's a big waste of resources, and I can't imagine that most arrangers would be caught dead trying to pull something like it. Another great detail is that Elvis Costello, or his stenographer, is apparently a little hazy on percussion instruments, so you get, over the course of the piece, alternating requests for 'Crash Cym. (clashed)' 'Crash Cym.' 'Piatti', often with requests for, say, rolls on crash cymbals. Also, amusingly, Mr. Costello wants us to bring a 'Piccolo Snare Drum' to be used for about 30 seconds, and an Alto Bass Drum (my personal favorite) to be struck three or four times. In my own music, I find the Alto Tenor Bass drum to be a more appropriate choice.*

In a way, the notation ambiguities and hilarious use of repeats (trust me, when it happens five times per movement, it becomes hilarious) make the piece more interesting for us to play. The music just isn't that good, and at least counting repetitions and shuffling parts around on the stand gives us something to do.

What drives me nuts about it all, though, is that I think Elvis Costello is a fantastic songwriter. His first five or six albums are extremely good and exciting- he's more than demonstrated a knack for writing great ear-worm melodies. So, why, in a 45 minute suite, do we get nothing that even approaches the rollicking rhythms and good humor of, say, 'Oliver's Army'? Instead he alternates between bland faux-Prokofiev and the sort of artificial big band music that you might find in an episode of 'Matlock' in which a big band conductor is found murdered. Also, as a side note, this piece contains the most egregious cembalom usage I've ever heard. It's bit like if someone started playing a Chinese jinghu in the middle of a Chopin piano concerto.

So, the question for me is- why did this piece get such good reviews? In some ways, I am very sympathetic to Elvis Costello's ambitions in the ballet because he does make an effort to incorporate popular music material in a way that treats the conventions in that music seriously. Still, this piece is a badly orchestrated one in an era which, whatever its defects, has raised orchestration to an unequalled, gorgeous height of cultivation. There are lots of composers writing better music that is equally accessible. Also, I must confess, I feel the natural green-googly-eyed irritation of an aspiring composer watching a famous pop singer's student works being recorded by the LSO.

Still, I resolve to give it more chances. It's only been a few rehearsals, so the piece still has time to grow on me. At least we're not doing anything by Paul McCartney.


*I know I sound like a jerk pointing this part out, but it only seems funny because the percussion instruments he calls for are so banal for the whole piece and then -- BAM! -- piccolo snare drum, and then alto bass drum.


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