Jazz vocalist, composer and aspiring conductor Bobby McFerrin’s one-night engagement with the Los Angeles Philharmonic turned out to be an amiable holiday concert filled with surprises.
Working in shirt sleeves, his baton often stowed behind his ear like William Tell’s arrow, McFerrin led a semi-serious performance of the suite from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” (which cracked up the audience); offered a free-flowing set of his signature jazz vocals; then ended with a vibrant, totally serious performance of the Symphony No. 7 by Beethoven. Now that’s range!
The high-spirited capacity audience slipped easily into McFerrin’s casual format. They joined him in a variety of sing-alongs; appreciated his humorous, offhand comments about the music and the orchestra; and in the end were mightily impressed by his no-nonsense approach toward the Beethoven symphony.
During “The Nutcracker Suite,” McFerrin kept up a constant repartee with the audience and musicians. “Come on. You know this,” he chided the audience, until he had them “tum, tum, tumming” along in unison to the strains of the opening march.
Next, McFerrin threw the orchestra a real curve, leading them in an impromptu performance of the opening theme to “Also Sprach Zarathustra.””Now we’re gonna play somethin’ by Dicky Strauss!” he announced. Then, without the aid of the score, the orchestra blurted and pounded out the familiar opening to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was a very funny moment.
For his solo set, McFerrin relied on material from past performances.
He ended with his comic star-turn reduction of “The Wizard of Oz,” during which he plays every character in rapid succession. Orchestra members could be seen huddled in the downstairs doorways watching and clapping.
But when it came to the Beethoven performance, McFerrin was in earnest. And although he was clearly aided by an orchestra that has played this piece 100 times and with as many different conductors, McFerrin imposed his distinctive personality on the performance.
Working (for whatever reason) without a score, he relies heavily on memory and musical instinct to find appropriate musical pathways. The result was a rendition that possessed both poetry and fire.
The poetry was particularly apparent in the gentle second movement, Allegretto, during which McFerrin relied on emotive hand gestures to communicate his intentions and desires.
It was a performance to make any tried-and-true conductor proud.
After a spontaneous ovation, McFerrin led the orchestra and audience in a hymnlike rendition of the “Mouseketeer Theme Song”: “M-I-C” (“see you next week, ” the audience responds) “K-E-Y,” etc. When Bobby McFerrin’s around, every day is Anything-Can-Happen Day!