McFerrin's act needs new twist

Music Review

April 02, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Bobby McFerrin is back at the Meyerhoff for another collaboration with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, this one devoted largely to Mozart. The program, which repeats tonight, is part of the BSO's Symphony With a Twist series. It could use a little more twist.

Although there will always be some folks getting their first exposure to McFerrin's distinctive, crowd-pleasing brand of vocalism during the obligatory improvisation portion of his concerts, and others who will never tire of hearing it, the rest of us could use a fresh idea or two.

Funny how most classical music types are struggling with ways to enliven 200-year-old concert formats. McFerrin's part-formal, part-informal programs have only been around for about 15 years, but his format could use some invigoration, too.

On Thursday night, when it came time for the improv, he offered the usual multiple-octave melodic riffs, punctuated by the usual assortment of percussive sound effects that somehow percolate from within him. He also reprised his whirlwind Wizard of Oz synopsis (now performed so often that the notion of improvisation no longer applies).

And when he joined pianist Christopher O'Riley in an extended jam, the only really interesting stuff was happening on the keyboard. I wish that McFerrin had just kept still for a few minutes and let O'Riley rip. The pianist, who departs occasionally from his classical milieu and has recorded his own transcriptions of rock songs by the group Radiohead, could easily have held the stage - and the audience - on his own.

As for the Mozart portion of the evening, that was most memorable for an account of the Piano Concerto No. 22, thanks in large measure to O'Riley's crystalline articulation and unusually sensitive phrasing. He caught the tender, stormy and witty sides of the score in equal measure. His cadenzas brimmed with character.

Lovely sounds came from the BSO, too, especially the woodwinds. The ensemble, reduced to 18th-century proportions, also gave pleasant accounts of a very early symphony - No. 7a in G major, written when the composer was about 10 - and a late one, the splendid No. 38, known as the Prague Symphony.

The results probably would have been much the same had McFerrin stayed in his dressing room and the concertmaster gave the cues. His amorphous baton technique hardly suggested a conductor in total control. But his love for the music communicated in its own way.

Concert

What: Bobby McFerrin appears with the BSO

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight

Tickets: Limited availability

Call: 410-783-8000

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