McFerrin's Mozart reveals a composer's ear

Music review

May 08, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

I never heard him in person, but -- on records, at least -- no Mozart interpreter matched composer Benjamin Britten. Britten interpreted the music of others "like a composer." This meant conducting that not only had a personal stamp, but also a unique sense of how "the music is supposed to go." As someone who shared Mozart's genius for opera, Britten always knew where the melody was and what was happening around it. His phrasing was natural, warm and emotionally generous; his sense of pulse was unerring; and he had an uncanny awareness of where the high point of a phrase was and about what to stress on the way there.

The way Bobby McFerrin conducts Mozart reminds me of Britten. This was as true of his performance last night of Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in Meyerhoff Hall with the Baltimore Symphony as it was, a week earlier, of his performance of the same composer's "Exsultate, jubilate."

Despite the conductor's generosity with repeats and his rather slowish tempos, McFerrin's choices seemed invariably right. The breadth and sense of relaxation of his approach matched his lightness of touch and his imaginative way of pointing up details. While there may have been a patch of ragged ensemble at the end of the third movement, McFerrin elicited beautiful performances -- ethereal delicacy from the strings in the second movement, exuberant thrusts from the horns in the finale.

The vocal solos that followed left no doubts about McFerrin's status as a composer. Composing is what every jazz player does whenever he or she improvises -- and McFerrin is one of the best. With BSO bassist David Sheets, McFerrin improvised a blues; with the participation of the audience, he delivered zany versions of children's songs; finally, he topped everything with an insanely inspired interpretation of "The Wizard of Oz," in which he re-created all the voices in that film's score.

Tchaikovsky, like Mozart, was inspired by Italian opera. And in McFerrin's performance of the Russian's Serenade for Strings in C, the Mediterranean sun shone brightly and warmly.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8 and tomorrow afternoon at 3.

Pub Date: 5/08/99

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