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Ronald Reagan and Smarty Jones notwithstanding, a record crowd turned out on a glorious June evening to hear American icon Bobby McFerrin do his thing(s) at the kickoff of the North Carolina Symphony's summer season in Regency Park. And Bobby did not disappoint.
With subsidized attendance for kids under 12, it was an opportunity for McFerrin to use his legendary appeal to hawk classical music to the younger set. Therefore, the first half of the program was a full classical program in itself, including an overture (to the Marriage of Figaro ), concerto (Vivaldi, Concerto for Two Cellos in g minor, RV 531) and symphony (Mozart No.38, "Prague"). McFerrin was all business as conductor and featured soloist with NCS principal cellist Bonnie Thron. He spoke little, but what he did say was directed at the kids, assuring them that classical music was both a good thing and cool.
The cello is purported to be the instrument most like the human voice, so what better way to test out the theory than to pair the two instruments. One of McFerrin's signature acts is singing one of the solo cello parts in a Vivaldi double concerto, no mean feat if you're really serious about accuracy of pitch, dynamics and blend of tone. McFerrin achieves the last by using four syllables to correspond to each of the four strings of the cello: "dee" = a; "da" = d; "do" = G; "doo" = C. The intensity with which he pronounces the consonant controls legato and staccato. It was tour de force , enough to keep even the kids spellbound. McFerrin had excellent bowing control and Thron fine breath support - no, now that's not right....
There were no gimmicks in the "Prague." McFerrin took all the repeats, turning the three-movement work into a substantial piece. He had obviously worked closely with the orchestra on interpretation: this was not a generic Mozart read-through. What problems existed had more to do with details in the sound engineering than the artistry. Although the system as a whole is much improved over last year, the placement of mikes in the orchestra needs some tweaking, particularly to enhance the upper winds.
McFerrin dismissed the orchestra for the second half of the program, inviting instead 23 members of the North Carolina Master Chorale. The group, wearing a rainbow of colored golf shirts, was seated in a semicircle around McFerrin, on call to provide occasional ostinato accompaniment to the singer's famous scat improvisations (McFerrin's is the musical equivalent of the old Sid Caesar routine, in which he spoke authentic sounding gibberish in any language on the face of the earth.). He roped in the audience as well in sing-a-long interjections of "tweedee" and "tweedah" on cue.
The program ended with another signature McFerrin number, the condensed soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz . McFerrin sings abbreviated versions of all the songs, perfectly mimicking the original cast, cuing the audience to sing the little instrumental tags. Although he melted at the end, he revived for an encore - again for the children of all ages - with the sign-off song from the old Mickey Mouse Club TV show (Now we know where Mr. Rogers learned that voice.)
As the bio in the program states, "Bobby McFerrin has been a passionate advocate for music education." Thanks to the series's corporate sponsors, kids get in free for the whole Summerfest series, and if Bobby McFerrin couldn't make them come back for more, we don't know who can.