Bobby McFerrin shows his finesse with voices

Chorus, soloists and BSO perform with strength, grace


April 05, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If, like me, you've grown a little weary of the Bobby McFerrin act - and judging by the empty seats last night at Meyerhoff Hall, there may be quite a few of you - just get over it. His appearance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and an impressive lineup of vocal forces is well worth catching this weekend.

To begin with, the primarily choral program is substantive and filling. And McFerrin has the works by Bach, Barber and Bernstein (a nice new twist on "The Three Bs") in a fairly firm grasp. He still is not likely to be mistaken for a latter-day Toscanini, but he does have a knack for making music in a natural, often refreshing manner, as he did last night.

Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, with its supple mix of the lyrical and jazzy, anticipates in many ways his Mass (being performed this weekend at Catholic University). The score captures the composer at his most disarming, and McFerrin easily tapped into that appeal, coaxing solid, warmly blended singing from the Choral Arts Society of Washington. Boy soprano Joshua Rosenberg delivered his solo ably. The BSO made a vivid sound; the strings, in particular, did glowing work.

Barber's Agnus Dei - an a cappella choral arrangement of his famous Adagio for Strings - taxed the sopranos and seemed in need of another rehearsal, but proved effective.

Other than a sluggish opening movement, Bach's Cantata No. 80, which gives the chorale tune Ein' feste Burg ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God") a brilliant workout, received a performance of considerable finesse and beauty. The chorus again sang vibrantly and with considerable polish, while the Bach-sized orchestra demonstrated clarity and grace.

Adding to the eloquence was the quartet of vocal soloists - silvery tones from soprano Karen Clift and mellow ones from mezzo Victoria Avetisyan; remarkable tenderness from tenor Richard Croft; sensitive work from baritone Stephen Salters (compensating for a weak low register).

As is traditional, McFerrin devoted part of the evening to his distinctive brand of vocal improv, starting with a jaunty riff that gradually brought the choristers into close-harmony support. Then, as he did two years ago in another BSO program, McFerrin brought out the Bach quartet and got all of them into a little open-mike-night routine, providing each with subtly vocalized accompaniment.

Clift offered a sweetly turned country and western song, Avetisyan chose the Habanera from Carmen (as the mezzo soloist in that 2001 concert did). Salters molded an inspired version of Gershwin's "Summertime," revealing seasoned jazz instincts. The Beatles' "Yesterday" was Croft's choice, and he gave it a gentle, haunting touch.

The concert will be repeated at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., at 8 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow. Call 410-783-8000.

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