Bobby McFerrin, the renowned singer, conductor, composer and recording artist, performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently (April 8) as featured vocalist and conductor for the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Mr. McFerrin, who rose to super-stardom in 1988 with the international number one pop hit, Don't Worry, Be Happy is one of the world's best known vocalists and improvisers, equally at home singing a cappella with jazz musicians as he is conducting symphony orchestras around the world.
"When I was twenty-seven I made the conscious decision to sing. I'd turn on the tape recorder and try stuff out, and it's funny, I was even scared of the sound of my own voice in the beginning I was intimidated by it. I would listen to myself and say, 'Gosh,' I sound like that? And wait until the house was empty and no one else was around," says McFerrin. It's comforting to know that someone whose records have sold twenty-million copies and who has collaborated with the likes of Yo Yo Ma, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, started out with the same doubts as the rest of us mere mortals who have ever dreamed of singing onstage. But Bobby McFerrin, the son of professional opera singers, was encouraged to work very hard at whatever it was that he wanted to do.
In his twenties he began to explore vocal solo improvisation when he turned 40, Bobby McFerrin says he wanted to give himself a birthday present that he would never forget: the opportunity to conduct a major symphony orchestra. "I was living in San Francisco at the time and started attending concerts and dropping little hints that I'd like to conduct the orchestra one day. And so they actually extended an invitation to me and I inquired as to whether my birthday was available and it was. So I conducted Beethoven's 7th and that was it. And as far as I was concerned that was all the conducting I was going to do. I was not bitten by the conducting bug, none of that stuff happened. I didn't think of myself as a conductor," he says. "But then invitations started rolling in, other orchestras heard that I had done that. The next thing you know, a third of my concerts are with symphony orchestras. It's actually kind of amazing but that's not something I set out to do, it just happened by itself. But I enjoy it, I really do."
Bobby McFerrin's Kennedy Center appearance with the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra featured works by Samuel Barber, Johann Sebastian Bach and Leonard Bernstein. At the Kennedy Center pre-concert discussion, WETA-radio director Dan Devany said pairing Bobby McFerrin with the choral works of those composers had "a direct connection." "As far as the Leonard Bernstein, Chichester Psalms, that is sung by a boy and an alto. And when you listen to some of what Bobby McFerrin has done in terms of his incredible range vocally, he really sings in a high voice, you realize there's a connection there between the musical language that Bernstein was using and what Bobby McFerrin was using," he says. "When we look at the Samual Barber piece, which is a setting of a chorus for the Addagio for Strings, again, it is Bobby's understanding of how the voice works that it makes great sense that he would be conducting this work. And the Bach, which is the Contata #80, which is a work for chorus and orchestra, again, that choral element, that use of the voice to celebrate music and express so much in music, it makes perfect sense that Bobby McFerrin who has his heart as a singer could do this."
For more than forty years, the career path of Bobby McFerrin has been a difficult one to categorize. WETA program director Dan Devany describes Mr. McFerrin as one of those unusual artists "whose art transcends categorization." "It is the fact that he does something that only Bobby McFerrin can do. He's more than just a singer. He's Bobby McFerrin. If you listen to Bobby McFerrin's popular music, you know it is he in an instant. He has created his own art in his own way through his vocal styles. I would almost liken him to someone like (1920's guitarist Andres) Segovia, the Spanish guitarist," he says. "Segovia created his own art at a time when there was no classical guitar. In a way, Bobby McFerrin has created his own art. He created his own Bobby McFerrin."
And Bobby McFerrin, says he doesn't try to categorize himself either he says first and foremost he is a singer. "That's my primary instrument. When I'm working with an orchestra, when I want to get my point across, I sing what I want to them. I love sharing music with people, that's why I like conducting. That's why I like working with an audience and getting them to sing. I just think it's really fun," he says.
[In May], Bobby McFerrin will begin his summer concert tour throughout Europe and Canada. You can find out more about his schedule on his web-site at www.bobbymcferrin.com.