Bobby McFerrin: surprises all around

Music review

April 30, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Bobby McFerrin's concert with the Baltimore Symphony last night in Meyerhoff Hall was filled with surprises.

McFerrin, a celebrated jazz soloist who began showing up on podiums less than 10 years ago, has improved as a conductor since his first appearance with the orchestra in January 1997. Don't misunderstand. The performances of McFerrin, a great musician with a solid classical background, were fine back then. It's just that they were better this time.

He led Mozart's early cantata, "Exulsate, jubilate" (K. 165), with sparkle and vigor, giving his radiant soloist, soprano Harolyn Blackwell, the kind of support she deserved. And Faure's "Requiem," which concluded the concert, was even better.

His tempos may have been slightly slower than those customarily used, but he made the music flow easily and freshly. The musicians played beautifully -- particularly the BSO's violas, led by Noah Chaves and Peter Minkler. The choristers made a fine contribution, with an especially ethereal "In paradisum." Baritone Sanford Sylvan made a strong and sympathetic soloist, and Blackwell's singing in "Pie Jesu" could not have been sweeter.

The big surprises came in the latter part of the first half of the concert, simply marked on the program book as "Bobby McFerrin: Vocal Solos."

That meant no orchestra. What was unexpected was that Blackwell joined McFerrin for a series of duets. The first of these was a dazzling reprise of the concluding "Alleluia" of the Mozart, in which McFerrin sang with the soprano and supplied the orchestra part. Then came two spirituals, "Fix me, Jesus" and "I'm ready," in performances operatic in their eloquence, vibrant in their identification with the words and sophisticated in their jazz inflections.

Then Sara McFerrin unexpectedly joined her 50-year-old son for "There is a balm in Gilead," singing with restraint and eloquence that made the song shine with simplicity and sincerity.

What happened next surprised McFerrin even more than the audience. A volunteer in the audience bravely joined him in Gounod's "Ave Maria." She sang with aching intensity, as if she were one of the world's great coloraturas.

She was -- Janice Chandler, visiting from Washington to hear Bobby McFerrin.

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