McFerrin's take on jazz

Concert review

February 25, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Bobby McFerrin tells the story of how he learned an invaluable lesson from Leonard Bernstein while picking up pointers on conducting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Asked about a note-packed passage in the score that was giving McFerrin some trouble, Bernstein replied, "It's all jazz."

That incident provided a starting point for McFerrin's latest engagement with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This "Symphony With a Twist" program, appropriately titled "It's All Jazz," looked more fulfilling on paper than it turned out to be Friday evening at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park. (It was repeated at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall the next night.)

The orchestra stayed backstage at the concert's start. There was a low-keyed chat about this and that from McFerrin, who then exited, leaving only the ghost of George Gershwin onstage -- in the form of a piano roll transcribed onto a Yamaha Disklavier (the player piano of the computer age).

The novelty of hearing Gershwin "play" an abbreviated version of his Rhapsody in Blue clearly delighted the audience; the machine got a nice round of applause. Then we had to wait for the Yamaha to be replaced by a Steinway and for the orchestra to assemble so that guest artist Jon Kimura Parker could come out and -- talk.

His topic included the effect of jazz and, specifically, Gershwin's music on Maurice Ravel. Then we heard, by way of illustration, maybe three tantalizing snippets of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, which should have been the set-up for a complete performance.

Instead, we got a complete performance of Gershwin's Concerto in F, preceded by hardly any discussion and no explanatory excerpts. Then intermission.

McFerrin's unique brand of vocal improvisations and audience participation exercises started the second half. He and Parker also did a little jamming, of sorts. And the pianist offered a snazzy dash though Chick Corea's non-improvisational "Got a Match?"

The orchestra was again backstage for all of that, which meant another break for reassembling so we could get to the finale, the "Symphonic Dances" from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.

Connecting the dots between jazz and classical music can make for a stimulating concert. This attempt seemed rather awkward, loosely structured and superficial. It still had entertainment value, of course, though probably more for those with limited exposure to McFerrin's terminally hip shtick.

Parker brought considerable bravura, nuance and spontaneity to the Gershwin concerto (it would have been fun to hear his take on the Ravel score, too). McFerrin's partnering was generally smooth. The orchestra sounded a bit under-rehearsed, the cellos under-nourished; Andrew Balio's trumpet purred nicely.

The Bernstein dances could have used more snap in a few kinetic spots, more poignancy in the final measures, but the conductor connected to the music's spirit. The ensemble played brightly and had a little help -- at McFerrin's urging, the audience chimed in vigorously on the shouts of "Mambo!"

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