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PROM 64: Prokofiev, Vivaldi, Mozart, McFerrin, Dukas, Ravel; Tamás Várga (cello); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Bobby McFerrin (vocalist/conductor); Royal Albert Hall, 7th September, 2003 (AR)



The 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.

Based 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.

His ‘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’.

It 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’ score.

For 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?

Next 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?

After 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Alex Russell


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