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McFarrin Well

Since 'Don't Worry, Be Happy,' the Vocalist-Conductor Has Had Classical, Jazz Reasons to Be Just That

August 23, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Virtuoso vocalist-cum-conductor Bobby McFerrin realized he'd forgotten to mention one significant biographical detail as he concluded a phone interview from his home in Minneapolis this week.

"I bet nobody knows I attended Cerritos College for a year," said McFerrin, who returns to Cerritos to lead the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts today and Saturday.

That academic stint may have occurred a quarter century and 10 jazz and pop Grammys ago, but McFerrin still recalls his days there fondly, singling out the school's erstwhile band director, Jack Wheaton, and piano instructor Don Erjavec, for praise.

McFerrin "still calls Mr. Erjavec periodically," music department secretary Rosemarie Medina later confirmed.

In Cerritos this weekend, McFerrin offers programs including Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony (No. 4 in A) and the Intermezzo, Scherzo and Nocturne from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; an unannounced contemporary set from McFerrin; and Faure's Pavane.

McFerrin's foray into classical music has kept him firmly in the public ear since the days in 1988 when his single "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was popular.

His 1992 collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, "Hush," topped Billboard's classical crossover chart for 33 weeks. "Paper Music" (Sony Classical), McFerrin's debut recording as a conductor, has been in the classical Top 10 since its release last year; on it, McFerrin vocalizes the solo instrumental lines, with accompaniment from the St. Paul group. A recording of Mozart concertos with jazz pianist Chick Corea is due in fall.

It's hard to imagine a greater crossover than that from McFerrin's runaway pop hit to conducting engagements with more than 50 major classical ensembles including the Chicago Symphony, London Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra.

"That's something, isn't it?" the 46-year-old musician asked with genuine wonder.

Since 1990, when McFerrin made his debut as a conductor with the San Francisco Symphony to celebrate his 40th birthday, conducting has remained the focus of his musical pursuits. His 1993 appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl was described in these pages as having "spread contagious joy and ear-opening novelty all over the Cahuenga Pass hillside"; at the same venue last year, he vocalized the national anthem a cappella in what a Times critic described as "an uncanny and unearthly scat-coloratura falsetto."

*

Two years ago the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra named McFerrin its Resource Trust Creative Chair; he'll help shape programming and create new educational activities. This year he began conducting subscription concerts. Christopher Hogwood remains principal guest conductor, and Hugh Wolff the music director.

McFerrin wouldn't have it any other way.

"I still don't know what conducting means to me--I don't have a clue," he said. "I don't know where my conducting career will be taking me. . . .

"But I know that I'm not attracted to being music director of any orchestra at any time in my career. I'm not the music-director type. It's not in my psyche at all; I'm not a good administrator. If I were a music director, I'd have to conduct 12 weeks out of a season at least . . . [and] conducting is not the only thing I do."

Hardly. McFerrin is also exploring long-form composition, and a commission for San Francisco Opera--working title "Gethsemane Park"--has been bandied about. Very little beyond that can be pinned down about the project, including stylistic considerations.

"I can't describe what my music will sound like--I have no idea what it's going to sound like--because I'm not writing it yet," McFerrin said. "Right now, I'm inundated with score study."

McFerrin--who lives with his wife, Debbie, and three children, ages 4 to 15--comes from a musical family. His father, bass baritone Robert McFerrin, was the first black male singer at the Metropolitan Opera. His mother, Sara, was a vocal professor at Fullerton College and remains on the board at Opera Pacific (she's vice president of community relations). McFerrin the younger racked up his own operatic experience recently, conducting performances of "Porgy and Bess" in Charlotte, N.C., with Opera Carolina.

As a child, McFerrin sang in his church choir; as a teenager, he hoped to become a priest. His Christian faith remains strong--which may at least in part account for his humility. For instance:

"I don't like being called maestro," he said, "because I'm not a master." Though McFerrin studied piano, he also bristles at the idea of being called a pianist.

*

Where other conductors bark their instructions to musicians or cajole players with baton finesse, McFerrin conveys his ideas using the musical language he knows best.

"I'm a new conductor," he explained. "I don't speak conductor-ese. When I'm rehearsing an orchestra, the most logical thing is to sing my instructions. That way, I can give all the flexibility of the line, the length, the breathing, the subtleties. . . . Singing is very natural for me."

In fact, all music may boil down to song for McFerrin. And in that sense, there's been little crossover, and only one career.

"It all comes down to my desire to make music," McFerrin said. "Singer, conductor, composer, what have you, music is fascinating; music is an adventure. I try to be the best musician I can be."

* Bobby McFerrin leads the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in works by Mendelssohn and Faure and contemporary music, today and Saturday at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. 8 p.m. $25 to $50. (800) 300-4345.

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