teaming of an innovative jazz vocalist and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
may look initially like a politically correct PR exercise. The VPO has
had a somewhat tainted image from its recent past as being a stuffed
shirt, conservative institution, largely excising women and ethnic minorities
from its ranks. However, this was not a marriage of expediency but a
genuine love match, and one that goes back 18 months.
on this concert, Bobby McFerrin also seems to be an inspired conductor.
Reminiscent of Celibidache, he has a magnetic hold over orchestra and
audience alike and conducts with refined elegance and balletic grace.
His ‘everyman’ image goes further than that of many other conductors
with a symbolic bridge between the conductor and audience formed by
the removal of the conductor’s podium. Throughout, McFerrin was laid
back, sometimes with his baton stuck like a hairpin in his dreadlocks.
There was an atmosphere of sheer delight in sharing music making and
it is not at all surprising that he has become established as an ambassador
of both the classical and jazz worlds.
‘pop classics’ programme opened with a suave and sprightly performance
of Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1 in D minor ‘Classical’. McFerrin’s
incisive conducting made all four movements sound perfectly unified
and integrated, with the music flowing effortlessly from one movement
to the next. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic was plush and pristine,
although lacking a gutsy edge, especially in the Finale where the woodwind
were perhaps too ‘fruity’.
was in Mozart’s G minor that the VPO came into its own, playing
sublimely. McFerrin made this solemn music sound darker than I have
heard before and his darting, lightening-quick hand gestures inspired
the VPO to play with great urgency and high drama. The Allegro was
brooding yet urgent, while the Andante was reserved and mellow
with the VPO strings suffusing great warmth. McFerrin brought a sense
of melancholia to the Menuetto and for the Trio he stopped
conducting to allow the wind band to extemporise. Here the VPO woodwinds
were star soloists in their own right and played superbly. The concluding
Allegro had a frightening, almost menacing, quality to it, making
it sound uncannily close to the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. McFerrin’s genius
was his ability to bring out the radical dissonances in this ‘dark’
his first vocalisations, McFerrin chose Antonio Vivaldi’s
Concerto in G minor for two cellos and orchestra, RV 531
where he was partnered by the Budapest-born cellist, Tamás Várga.
What could easily have sounded merely gimmicky under lesser talents,
here sounded extraordinarily ‘classical’ and ‘natural’. McFerrin’s voices
(for he has more than one voice) became at one with the sounds of the
cellist and the VPO strings. This worked very well in the Largo where
his voice blended so well it was no longer a voice but sounded like
a solo stringed instrument. An extraordinary experience and one wonders
what he would make of the Brahms Double Concerto?
we were treated to McFerrin’s Solo Improvisations where versatility
and invention produced a multiplicity of voices: man, woman, animal,
bird and indefinable alien. At one stage he used his hand on his chest
as a drum beat whilst at other times his voice became like a full symphony
orchestra in itself. Using electronic voices projected from the back
of the hall gave the illusion of the audience singing Gounod's Ave
Maria while McFerrin vocalised Bach’s Prelude that forms
its accompaniment. Or were they really the audiences’ voices?
the interval, McFerrin’s witty interpretation of Paul Dukas’ The
Sorcerer’s Apprentice was unusually broad and measured, taking the
music slightly slower than we are used to but giving it much greater
depth and dynamism between the slow hushed passages for the woodwinds
and the whirling orchestral climaxes: a reflective, well thought-out
interpretation of this popular score.
opening of Ravel’s Boléro suffered from opaque woodwind
playing that lacked the spiky acidic bite the score demands with a solo
trombone that missed any sense of the grotesque. However, McFerrin was
a master at slowly and gradually building up the tension and dynamics,
with his rigidly disciplined and totally assured military beat building
up the mania and madness of the closing passages to perfection.
encore was a total vindication of McFerrin’s belief in mixing classical
and modern trends, delivering a spirited (and unusual) performance of
Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The Vienna Philharmonic laid
aside their instruments after the opening bars and were transformed
into the Viennese Schwingelsingers, vocalising Rossini’s most famous
overture at breakneck speed, with all its intricacies left intact. This
brought the capacity house to their feet in a massive ovation – a fitting
climax to an afternoon of inspired music making.