Prom 64 – Much (Viennese Vocal) Ado About Nothing

Symphony No.1 in D (Classical)
Symphony No.25 in G minor, K183
Vivaldi (arr. McFerrin)
Concerto in G minor for two cellos, RV531
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Tamás Várga (cello)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bobby McFerrin (vocalist)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 7 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A curiosity on paper perhaps not surprisingly turned out to be a curiosity in concert. Admittedly one in which the packed hall screamed and shouted for more and, even after the orchestra had left the stage, were rewarded with one last Bobby McFerrin vocalisation. For me it only proved the point that ’less is more’ and the sight of a conductor alone on stage should be reserved only for the most extraordinary events. I have only seen it with Karajan, Ozawa and Abbado.McFerrin is simply not in their league.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the performances here were very routine. McFerrin (who outdoes Jerzy Maksymiuk’s habit of piercing his hair with his baton as he conducts by actually storing his baton in his dreadlocks as he wanders on and off the stage) conducted without reading the scores, presumably because having it would have little effect in bringing some spark of individuality to the performance. In the blurb about him in the programme it stressed his dislike of ’performance’, in that everything should be done naturally, but here the interpretative ideas went no further than getting from A to B – there was no spontaneity in the music. Mind you, given that the Vienna Philharmonic was at his feet, the performances were never less than stylish, but I’m afraid I demand much more from an orchestra that can rightly (if arguably) claim to be the greatest in the world.

Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony was streamlined in a luxurious sort-of-way, with a full complement of strings, which negates the composer’s ruse of dragging Haydn into the 20th-century. In the Mozart (played immediately after the Prokofiev and before the Vivaldi – “We’ve inverted the next two pieces,” McFerrin explained), McFerrin reduced the forces to what we have come to expect for a classical-size band: so few strings in fact that an abnormally large gap appeared between the strings and the woodwind and four horns. You expect nice Mozart from this orchestra, and we got better than nice, but again simply not distinctive.

The Vivaldi was distinctive but only in the most bizarre way. Young co-leader of the cellists Tamás Várga took his place at the front, with McFerrin sat next to him, microphone in both hands, fingering it as if a wind instrument. Let’s be completely clear about this, the idea of one part being sung and the other retained on the original instrument simply doesn’t work. The timbres of voice and instrument are so different, and at times certain registers of the voice simply, well, didn’t register – Vivaldi must have been covering his ears to block out this mockery of music-making. Perhaps if another voice had taken the other cello part … NO – I never want to hear this again!

We then got McFerrin doing his vocal improvisation stuff. Four of them: getting progressively more interesting as he started to involve the audience. Perhaps most impressive was the ’Ave Maria’ to end, most of all because of the (presumably) ex-choristers who knew all the words (there were two around me) as an accompaniment to which McFerrin vocalised Bachian arpeggios, sounding remarkably like a small organ.

The second half swelled the orchestra to include a lady bassoonist (not credited) for Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to add to the credited lady second violinist and lady harpist and then (having shed that bassoonist) brought on a lady saxophonist (not credited) for Boléro. Efficient, well-played but anodyne and characterless, these performances will slip quickly from the memory.What I will never forget is the encore. McFerrin came back and led the brass in the rousing fanfare to the final section of the overture to William Tell. So far, routine. But then the orchestra downed their instruments and sang the rest of the piece!

Now I suppose one shouldn’t be that surprised. The Vienna Philharmonic is about the only orchestra I have ever heard sing (the odd Strauss Family item in New Year’s Day concerts). But singing individual parts was both breathtakingly funny and amazing. Regrettably the final solo improvisation, best left, which McFerrin made from the empty stage could never have topped the audacity of what had immediately gone before.

The VPO is back in town on 17 December at the Royal Festival Hall. Assuming Mariss Jansons hasn’t taken up singing, the programme promises some straight orchestral fare: Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas, Schumann 2 in C and Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Perhaps then the orchestra can shine as the lustrous ensemble it truly is.

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