Saginaw Symphony Orchestra
Bobby McFerrin, guest conductor
May 13, 1995
Review published in|
The Saginaw News
May 15, 1995
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Bobby McFerrin, jazz/pop vocalist extraordinaire and newly anointed orchestral conductor, took the audience in the Heritage Theater by storm Saturday night, as he appeared in concert with the Saginaw Symphony Orchestra. Those in the know had understood McFerrin's vocal genius since his first album in 1982, but it took an extraordinary leap into new musical frontiers with his ultra-solo album Simple Pleasures in 1988 to catapult him to widespread popular acclaim.
If those who were in the audience hoped to hear that album's runaway hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" (or if those who seemed to stay away in droves feared they would!), the point was moot. He didn't sing it. In fact, McFerrin has proved himself over the years to be an extraordinarily versatile and creative musician, far exceeding in depth, scope, and inventiveness that lightweight (albeit thoroughly entertaining) ultimate "feel good" song.
Saturday's concert featured McFerrin as conductor (exacting), singer (stylish), and stand-up comedian (hilarious), with a dash of just about everything in between. There was never any question we were in the presence of genius.
McFerrin is relatively new as an orchestral conductor, though the precision, style, and orchestral colors that emerged as hallmarks of his efforts make one willing to admit that here is another genre he has conquered. The pared-down Saginaw Symphony probably didn't have quite enough rehearsals with McFerrin on a couple of the works (for example the Mendelssohn Scherzo from Midsummer Night's Dream Incidental Music) but on the whole they gave him what he asked. Among those things were brisk, almost breakneck, tempi; detailed attention to phrasings and accents; and orchestral colors, based on inventive adjusting of balance and dynamics among various sections.
The orchestral numbers comprised an audience-pleasing set of popular and short classical works, beginning with a detailed reading of Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro and Faure's beguiling Pavanne. Pop singer adaptations of the Pavanne are numerous (everyone from Barbra Streisand to Annie Haslam), but few if any give the vocal line the sweetness and purity that McFerrin does.
After an inventive and madcap interlude by the (fictitious) "modern" composer Ying-Yang, which featured a phenomenal McFerrin scat over an improvised jazz bass riff, came the ill-prepared Mendelssohn. He crooned with simple sweetness the first violin part of Bach's "Air on a G String" with the orchestra, then announced a performance of Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah." It was, of course, Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours," delivered with speed and a grand coda.
The first half raced to a close with a potpourri of McFerrin solos, beginning with what sounded like an African mbaqanga, unfortunately unidentified, which I would have bet would have been impossible for only one person to perform. McFerrin blazed through it. After a "Drive" from the Simple Pleasures album, which featured his chest as his patented percussion instrument, and "My eyes are in Heaven," he elicited the audience's participation in "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," "Head Shoulders Knees and Toes," and his own "Twee-dee, Twee-dah." The erstwhile reserved Saginaw audience bounded to their feet and sang, as they would the Mickey Mouse Club theme to close the concert, because of McFerrin's infectious musical joy and the fact that listening to his seemingly effortless vocalizings makes audiences convinced they, too, can sing.
Intermission came after a speed-of-sound trip to see The Wizard of Oz via McFerrin airlines, including tornados, Munchkins, and a melting witch, all created by the most amazing instrument on stage that night, McFerrin's voice.
The brief second half began with Strauss' Overture to Die Fledermaus, the second time this orchestra has played it this season, and a performance of Bizet's four-movement L'Arlesienne Suite No. 1. McFerrin and the orchestra gave a tranquil, idyllic reading of the strings-only third movement, which was about as lyrically beautiful as you're ever likely to hear it.
Early on, McFerrin gave warning of his mission: to get everyone to love more than one type of music, suggesting that listening only to one type was rather like spending all your time in only one room of your house. Exploring the multi-room mansion that is the scope and musical genius of Bobby McFerrin, if that were actually possible, would in itself be a musical ecumenism worthy of pursuit.
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