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The Classical Bobby McFerrin

Music: Jazz pianist and singer, known for 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' single, studied in O.C. and will conduct at OCPAC.

May 15, 2001|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some people may be surprised to see Bobby McFerrin take the podium Saturday to lead the Pacific Chorale at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

They know him as a jazz pianist and a solo jazz singer who has 10 Grammy Awards and a host of recordings to his credit. Many could sing along to his 1988 chart-topping single, "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

But McFerrin has been conducting orchestras for more than a decade too, and he's come by the classical post legitimately.

His father, Robert McFerrin, was the first male African American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He made his Met debut on Jan. 27, 1955, as Amonasro in Verdi's "Aida" a few weeks after Marian Anderson had broken the color barrier at the Met.

His mother also was a singer and a voice teacher at Fullerton College for 20 years and head of the music department for three.

"I grew up in a home where there was all kinds of music," McFerrin said in a recent interview from his home in Minneapolis, where he has just finished a seven-year stint as creative chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

"My parents weren't snobs by any means. I'd hear 'Rigoletto,' then they'd turn on 'Porgy and Bess' and then Debussy. . . . So it was a very easy transformation from being a jazz singer and then doing the podium thing."

Born in New York on March 11, 1950, McFerrin showed his musical talent, especially at improvisation, early.

"He always made these weird musical sounds," his mother, Sara McFerrin, remembers. "I never told him to stop. I'd say, 'Oh, honey, please.' There was an inflection in my voice that meant something. He'd stop. Momentarily. Then start up again."

McFerrin's mother was speaking from the Pacific Chorale headquarters in Santa Ana. A resident of Fullerton, she has been on the Pacific board since 1988.

"He also played the piano quite well. He was the kind of piano student who would play the full page of something perfectly, then get to about the fourth measure before the end and make a mistake. He would go back to the beginning and do the same thing. . . .

"I would say, [just] correct that mistake. But he wouldn't. He would go back to the beginning and play it all again. If he got it right, finally, I would think, 'Oh, God, thank you.' "

McFerrin began getting it right pretty regularly. As a child, he studied briefly at the junior Juilliard School and, after the family moved to California in 1955, he eventually studied at Cerritos College and California State University, Sacramento, where he earned degrees in composition and music theory.

After graduating, he began touring as a pianist/arranger, first with the Ice Follies, then with a series of bands, cabaret acts and dance troupes. Prompted by an inner voice, he switched to singing in 1977 and quickly made his name in that field as well.

"As a solo singer in the late '80s, I felt I had pretty much explored everything I could," McFerrin said.

"The hardest thing for me was simply the act of conducting. I had no training in that. I had a lot of learning to do, which I still do."

He took lessons from Gustav Meier, one of the country's foremost conducting teachers, at Tanglewood, and also from Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. He made his conducting debut on his 40th birthday, leading the San Francisco Symphony in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Since then, he's conducted major orchestras here and abroad. He'll make his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic next season. His relationship at St. Paul will continue, but on a less formal basis, according to an orchestra spokesperson.

"In the beginning, I did a lot of interviews and I'd get the question, 'So you've left the jazz world? You've switched. You've left us?' I got that mostly from the interviewers. I didn't hear much negative response from musicians."

But the classical world had its doubts.

"There are snobs on both sides of the fence," McFerrin said. "There are some musicians who think improvisation is the real way to explore music. Others say, sink your roots into one plot and find different meanings in different ways."

His concert Saturday came about because his mother introduced him to Pacific Chorale music director John Alexander at a Chorus America convention several years ago. McFerrin will conduct Faure's Requiem, spirituals and his own compositions.

He'll also give a sampling of his famous vocal improvisations.

"Improvisation isn't eagerly taught in a lot of conservatories," he said, "even though the musicians that we venerate [for starters: Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven] were all improvisers. I don't understand how the connection, how the cord got severed."

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