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MUSIC REVIEWS : McFerrin: More Than Jazz at Bowl


Had he thrived 50 years ago, the American jazz singer-conductor Bobby McFerrin would have been labeled a raconteur. Forty years ago, he might have been hailed a Renaissance man. And 30 years ago--well, 30 years ago, he would have been Lenny.

The hyperkinetic, superpersonable, wide-ranging singer, scion of a family of musicians, does more than vocalize, conduct and produce music. He lives it.

In his local conducting debut, when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic two times over the weekend, the 43-year-old, Grammy-winning vocalist spread contagious joy and ear-opening novelty all over the Cahuenga Pass hillside. He also caused the Philharmonic to play on its higher level of unself-conscious virtuosity. McFerrin, clearly, was having fun. So was the orchestra.

Both on its own and at the conductor's bidding, the Saturday-night audience--tabulated at 14,404 (the Friday count had been 11,526)--participated fully in this fun. It sang, clapped, mimed and laughed out loud, just like kids at camp. But, unlike some other Saturday-night crowds at the Bowl, it proved seldom, if ever, rowdy.

An entertainer in every way, and one who never hesitates to engage in genial talk with his audience, Bobby McFerrin is also, from the evidence of his and the Philharmonic's official, program-closing performance of Beethoven's Second Symphony, the real thing: a conductor with ideas, opinions, taste and a working ear. This reading had organization, tight balances and a songful thrust; it seemed shorter than it was.

The first half of the evening tried to touch all McFerrin bases, and thus seemed longer. Few living conductors--only Placido Domingo and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau come to mind--have the vocal resources to begin a concert by singing, solo, "The Star-Spangled Banner." McFerrin, of course, is in that number, and did so--in the highest possible key, it seemed--effectively.

His way with the "Fledermaus" Overture may not have demolished memories of great performances of this piece in this setting, but it moved along convincingly and stylishly, nonetheless.

What came next proved McFerrin unique. First, he led Faure's famous "Pavane," singing the choral part himself, from the podium. At that point, with just a few members of the orchestra, he vocalized the Air from Bach's Third Suite; then, before his jazz set, McFerrin the singer accompanied cellist Daniel Rothmuller in the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria"--a treat as well as a feat.

With his trio--bassist Jeff Carney and drummer Eddie Marshall--the magnetic McFerrin offered a six-part set with special climaxes on "I Love Paris" and "Fever," and much audience participation.

After the Beethoven symphony, McFerrin and the Philharmonic offered as individual a first encore as must ever have been heard at the Bowl on any night of the week: the finale to the Overture to Rossini's "William Tell" as sung by the members of the orchestra, each section of the ensemble vocalizing its own instrumental part. And singing well, to boot. A first.

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