Elvis Costello has never been shy about collaborating, throwing his lot in with folks as diverse as Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and the Brodsky Quartet. The onetime angry young man really swings for the fences, however, on his latest “collaboration” — transliterating Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a symphonic piece entitled “Il Sogno.”
The piece, which made its North American bow on the final night of Costello’s three-date stand at Lincoln Center, was at once remarkably dense and wittily playful. Commissioned by an Italian dance troupe, “Il Sogno” revels in physicality — percussion, including syncopated clapping worthy of a big fat Greek wedding, plays a large role, as does a forceful celeste — but not to the point where it demands terpsichorean accompaniment.
Costello had virtually no trouble converting the mastery of character development he’s shown in his pop lyrics into orchestration, assigning each set of primary actors a distinct sonic personality. Opening in the royal court, the piece immediately takes on a romantic tenor melodramatic enough to suit a Douglas Sirk heroine, with sighing strings and teasing woodwinds at the fore. An abrupt but apt mood shift is signaled by the emergence of a brass-led counterpoint bursting with the sort of feisty jazz-age energy once employed by Darius Milhaud.
The two diametrically opposed styles — leavened now and again by gentle Celtic interludes that relied heavily on the dulcimer playing of Lawrence Kaptain — didn’t exactly fuse, but that clearly was not Costello’s intention. For the duration of the three-movement, 70-minute piece, the musicians kept up a vigorous dialogue, hemming and hawing, then breaking into lustful roars.
Now and again, an individual player would materialize with something of a monologue — first violinist Laura Hamilton’s regal dissertation, double bassist Greg Cohen’s rhythmic leg-pulling — but “Il Sogno” is categorically an ensemble piece. Conductor Brad Lubman maintained that tem-perament beautifully: He let the nuances of Costello’s writing emerge, making for a surprisingly profound concert experience.
After an intermission, Costello and longtime pianist Steve Nieve joined the Philharmonic for a brief set of his pop material, most of it gathered from the more shadowy reaches of his catalog. Highlights included “I Want to Vanish” and a wrenching “She’s Pulling Out the Pin.”
“Il Sogno,” as recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, will be released by Deutsche Grammophon in September.