Pop goes label for McFerrin

Conductor: Nine years after `Don't Worry,' the BSO guest has remade his image directing orchestras across the country and in Europe.

April 29, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The question was inevitable.

Bobby McFerrin was talking Tuesday to high school students who had just seen him rehearse the Baltimore Symphony for a series of concerts this weekend at the Meyerhoff.

A girl raised her hand, hesitated and then asked:

"Did you have trouble getting people [in orchestras] to see past `Don't Worry, Be Happy'? "

McFerrin snorted with laughter.

"When I faced an orchestra for the first time, their notion of me was a little ambiguous to say the least," he said. "Every musician had to be thinking, `What can he tell us about Beethoven and Mozart?' I was so nervous that I didn't use a baton. I knew I wouldn't be able to keep it from shaking."

That was in 1990, two years after he had written and recorded one of the top-selling pop classics of all time -- 10 million sales in the United States alone, more than twice that number worldwide.

For years he had been the prince of jazz vocalists, a Grammy Award winner whose admirers included musicians as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Leonard Bernstein, Keith Jarrett and Yo-Yo Ma. Drawing upon his four-oc- tave range, using circular breathing (inhaling while continuing to sing) and drumming upon his chest, McFerrin had created a unique vocal style that was able simultaneously to suggest both melody and accompaniment.

But "Don't Worry, Be Happy" had created a Frankenstein's monster -- expectations that he turn out more mass-audience hits like his top-selling ode to optimism. Fearing that he was about to be pigeonholed, McFerrin was both worried and unhappy.

After talking to the students, McFerrin returned to his dressing room in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. "I was very burned out," he said, recalling the aftermath of his popular success. "I was two years away from my 40th birthday, and I wanted to take stock of myself as a musician, to see what I wanted to do."

The result was an 18-month sabbatical.

"During that time, I came up with a wish list," he said. "High on that list was conducting."

McFerrin resided in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and three children. A longtime subscriber to the San Francisco Symphony, he made it known that he might be interested in conducting.

The orchestra snapped at the bait.

" `When do you have a date available,' they asked," McFerrin recalled. "I told them that I thought I was free on Sunday, March 11, 1990 -- because that happened to be my 40th birthday."

San Francisco's interest in McFerrin was not surprising. American orchestras were (and continue to be) desperate to widen their appeal, particularly to younger people, and they were beginning to turn to pop musicians to entice such audiences. And McFerrin was no ordinary pop musician.

"A great musician is a great musician, and Bobby is surely that," says David Zinman, the BSO's former music director. "Plus, he had a solid grounding in the classics."

McFerrin was a Juilliard-trained pianist who had university degrees in composition and music theory. He had been immersed in classical music since he had been in the womb. His father, Robert, had been one of the finest bass-baritones on the Metropolitan Opera roster in the 1950s and early '60s (as well as the first black man to sing in the opera house). His mother, Sara, had herself been a distinguished singer and continues to be -- even in semi-retirement -- one of the nation's most respected voice teachers.

And when McFerrin appeared on the San Francisco podium for the first time, he wasn't exactly unprepared. He had spent the two summers during his sabbatical at Tanglewood studying conducting with friends such as Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa and Gustav Meier.

Since then, McFerrin has been a frequent guest conductor at American orchestras, such as the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, as well as at orchestras in Europe. Three years ago, he completed what is said to have been a successful two-year stint at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, with the title "creative chair."

Although he chooses to call himself "a vocalist who enjoys conducting," his rehearsal of Gabriel Faure's "Requiem" Tuesday demonstrated that he need not be so modest. He rehearsed the orchestra efficiently and intelligently.

And since this first rehearsal did not include the singers of the BSO Chorus, McFerrin also functioned as a one-man vocal ensemble as well as a one-man orchestra. His wordless vocalise supplied not only the missing choral part, but also provided information about phrasing, without wasting time with words.

His debut with the BSO two years ago was an unqualified success with both musicians and audiences.

"He's a joy to work with," said BSO associate principal violist Noah Chaves, when the rehearsal ended. "He's a beautiful, natural musician -- and I love playing along with his singing."

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