POP MUSIC REVIEW : Miss Capulet, You’ve Inspired This Costello Fellow
Verona , Italy
I don’t know where you are these days or what you were doing Sunday night, but I thought you might like to hear about the enchanting concert that you helped inspire at Royce Hall.
Inspiration in art can come from the most unexpected places, but you’ll probably be more surprised than anyone to find that your story has led to an entire album by a rock ‘n’ roll singer and a string quartet.
It seems Elvis Costello and his wife, Cait O’Riordan, read somewhere that a professor from your hometown has for years been answering mail sent to you from Shakespeare readers around the world.
Who would write letters to an imaginary character . . . a dead imaginary character at that? The question intrigued Costello, who is one of rock’s most acclaimed songwriters.
Art speaks to us in strange ways and your story, I guess, remains so compelling that people find it easier--and safer--to turn to you than to real people in times of celebration or need.
At any rate, Costello got together with the Brodsky Quartet and put string music to some imaginary letters of their own--and in your honor, they called the recent album “The Juliet Letters.”
The idea wasn’t to form a narrative, but simply showcase a range of emotions--and the music turned out quite delightful, reflecting Costello’s usual range of anger, compassion and wit.
“The Juliet Letters” take the form of everything from a hilarious example of a 20th-Century phenomenon known as junk mail to--no offense--a suicide note. There’s even--and you may appreciate this--a somewhat bittersweet yet still endearing letter from beyond the grave.
Sunday’s concert, the American premiere of the work, will stand as one of the year’s pop highlights. This wasn’t just an evening of engaging music. It was also a night of disarming enthusiasm.
It was strange seeing Costello--once known as rock’s Angry Young Man--walk on stage politely carrying a book of lyrics rather than wielding his battle-ready guitar. But “The Juliet Letters” was just the change that he, and his art, needed. Costello--who by the ‘80s seemed a prisoner of his image and style--was a man liberated.
Costello shared lighthearted explanations of each “letter” and often playfully adopted the vocal mannerisms (and body language) of many of the writers--including a cantankerous old aunt who recoils at the thought of a spoiled in-law getting any of her inheritance. At times, the feel at Royce was more akin to the lightness of a British music hall than a formal recital hall.
Costello--known in his early days for sometimes storming off stage after just 45 minutes--had such a good time that he and the quartet returned after the formal program for seven encore numbers, including two compositions by Costello: a new one and the torch ballad “Almost Blue.” Otherwise, he turned to material by a eclectic array of writers ranging from Tom Waits to Jerome Kern.
Most affecting was a disarming string arrangement on the Beach Boys’ tender “God Only Knows.”
The good news, Juliet, is that you’ll have a chance to see some of the music yourself. Costello and the quartet--violinists Ian Belton and Michael Thomas, violist Paul Cassidy and cellist Jacqueline Thomas--will guest this evening on “The Tonight Show.” Just aim your satellite dish and enjoy.