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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

Don't worry, be Bobby

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC WRITER

Bobby McFerrin loves to conduct orchestras. But before he starts, you had better tell the stagehands to ditch the podium and the instrumentalists not to call him maestro. Instead, sign him in as just one more of the musicians.

And you string players, don't expect a lot of precise directions. The more open-ended a performance, the better, says the 54-year-old 10-time Grammy Award winner.

"I am no authoritarian. I don't want any elevation above the other musicians, either physically or otherwise. And I like to leave things to surprise. I want performances to have mystery, as big an element of spontaneity as possible," he said in a phone interview from Philadelphia.

"As a jazz artist, I don't generally spend a lot of time rehearsing. Instead, there is always that improvisational element, where you throw ideas out and then just see what happens.

"I like that approach and try to bring it to my conducting. The way I see it, if the musicians know everything by the performance, then there is the tendency to play on automatic. I don't want that," he said.

Bobby McFerrin leads the Toledo Symphony in a pair of concerts next weekend at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. He will be featured soloist as well.

Known throughout the world for his remarkable vocal improvisations and four-octave range, McFerrin has been conducting since 1990, when he made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. That was supposed to be the beginning and end of the endeavor, but more gigs followed and one thing led to another.

"I wanted to do something challenging and different as a 40th birthday present to myself. Conducting the San Francisco Symphony was one present that I knew I wouldn't forget. I wasn't looking for a career as a conductor, or anything like that."

But he found one nonetheless. He has conducted many of America's finest orchestras, and, in Europe, even the famously conservative Vienna Philharmonic.

In fact, for McFerrin the leap from mega-hits like his 1988 "Don't Worry, Be Happy" to Bach was relatively small, even a step backwards of sorts. His childhood home had been filled with jazz and R&B, but also classical music.

"I grew up with Beethoven and Basie. And I loved them both," he said.

His parents were singers. McFerrin's father, baritone Robert McFerrin, Sr., was both the first African-American male soloist at New York's Metropolitan Opera, in 1955, and the singing voice of Sidney Poitier in the 1959 movie version of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In New York, the McFerrin family lived in the same building as the glorious soprano Marian Anderson, who broke Metropolitan Opera's color barrier just weeks before McFerrin, Sr.'s debut. In New York, and later in Los Angeles, the McFerrin home was filled with song.

As a child, Bobby began his musical studies on clarinet, but braces made the instrument impractical, so he switched to piano. On that instrument, he eventually toured with the Ice Follies and later played in a lounge band.

Sustainable work, but hardly remarkable.

It wasn't until 1977 that McFerrin found his niche as a singer. The next year he toured with Jon Hendricks, Toledo's legendary jazz vocalist. By the early 1980s, McFerrin was testing and strengthening his creativity by presenting totally improvised solo performances. Things happened quickly after that.

He won his first Grammy Award in 1985 for "Another Night in Tunisia" with the Manhattan Transfer. Nine more followed, including two for "Don't Worry, Be Happy," which sold 20 million copies.

Then McFerrin opened another musical door. He took time off from singing, packed his bags, and set off for Tanglewood, Mass., where he sat in on conducting classes with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. In 1994, he was named creative director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, an appointment he held for six years.

The time in St. Paul was essential, he said.

"At the beginning, I had no clue as to what to say to an orchestra. Luckily, the musicians gave me permission to be myself. I didn't have to talk like a conductor. They said, 'We know where you're coming from, so just sing to us and we'll get it. That's our job.' So I did and it worked. Even so, I am still learning as I go," he said.

And still taking chances.

None of the music in next weekend's program is central to McFerrin's repertoire. It has been more than two years since he conducted Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite," the same for Bizet's Symphony in C. His last performance of the difficult Dukas showpiece "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was seven years ago.

McFerrin will also sing.

For him, the program offers a perfect combination.

"I get to conduct these gloriously wonderful pieces. But I also like that fact that I am not working alone. I like collaborating with other musicians, to feel like I am part of a band. That's important to me. My early career was built as a soloist, and people still know me best for that. But working with others is great," he said.

Bobby McFerrin conducts and solos with the Toledo Symphony in a program of music by Dukas, Bizet, Grieg, and others at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Tickets range from $18 to $48. Information: 419-246-8000.

Contact Steven Cornelius at: scornelius@theblade.com or 419-724-6152.



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