Two musical stories were told last night at the Peristyle - one sunny, the other partly cloudy - when vocal wonder Bobby McFerrin offered solo improvisations and conducted the Toledo Symphony in well-known music of Grieg, Dukas, and Bizet.
In song, McFerrin dazzled with a set that ranged in styles from swing to funk to popular song. He opened with a piece that borrowed techniques from jazz swing, Central African pygmy hocket that alternated bass with falsetto, and South African Zulu tongue clicks (you might remember the sound from Paul Simon's Graceland album with Ladysmith Black Mambazo). All this was accompanied by McFerrin's toe tapping, foot stomping, chest slapping, and skillful use of the microphone. It was a remarkable fusion of musical ideas.
McFerrin followed with a funky version of the 1960s standard "Suzie Q" and an airy setting of Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird."
Revisiting a collaboration that began more than a quarter century ago when they toured together, McFerrin invited Toledo's master jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks up on stage. The two improvised a swing tune with each taking turns as soloist and accompanist.
The rest of the audience got into the show as McFerrin repeatedly looked for their participation. As a climax, he asked them to sing Charles Gounod's lovely "Ave Maria" over his vocalized rendition of J.S. Bach's C Minor Prelude from the "Well-Tempered Clavier." It was an embracing moment.
The set's conclusion began gently enough with a touching reading of Arlen and Harburg's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." From there, McFerrin went into a full-scale musical condensation of The Wizard of Oz, in which he took on the roles of the Cowardly Lion, Munchkins, Wizard, and a particularly harrowing Wicked Witch.
In the role of conductor, McFerrin fared less well.
Certainly his symphonic temperament is musical. Almost invariably melodies were gentle, infused with a certain sense of naive self-discovery.
But it also lacked sinew and any sense of elasticity. Musical gestures were pleasant enough in themselves, but each seemed disconnected from its neighbor.
In the end, musicians played well in spite of McFerrin, not because of him.
This is not necessarily a complaint, just an observation. McFerrin is a casual guy who likes to collaborate with, not hold court over, an orchestra. It's not a technique that would work in the long run, but offers engaging ideas in the short term.
(Just how casual is McFerrin? I suspect he is the first conductor in history to tuck his baton pencil-style behind his ear before bowing.)
One last observation. It was delightful to see the Peristyle full for a concert of (mostly) classical music. Even nicer was to find so many young people in the audience.
Tonight's concert is sold out, but there may be a few last-minute returns available at the door.
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