September 26, 2018

Vocalist Bobby McFerrin Brings “Random Musical Musings” to Princeton

By Nancy Plum

Bobby McFerrin is a vocal visionary, stretching the capabilities of the human voice to new heights and palettes of sound. Through his recordings, live improvisational concerts, conducting engagements, and his innovative professional ensemble Voicestra, McFerrin has shown that he is so much more than his signature musical command “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” As part of Princeton University Concerts’ 2018-19 season, McFerrin brought his unique brand of musical performance to Richardson Auditorium last Friday night in a joint concert with the Princeton University Glee Cub and the vocal ensemble Gimme5. The informality of the evening was set when the members of the Glee Club took the stage dressed in everyday collegiate attire, however the quality of this concert was anything but casual.

The musicians performed less than 10 musical selections within the 90-minute concert, but each was a creative unfolding of sound and vocal color, undulating in dynamics and timbre as singers were added and subtracted from the musical palette. Princeton University Concerts wisely chose to begin its 125th anniversary season with singing, as more people participate in singing than any other performance medium, and the crowd-unifying elements of Bobby McFerrin will no doubt pique the interest of new attendees for later events.

As a performer, McFerrin is unassuming yet energetic, fully committed to drawing the other performers and audience into his web of musical mayhem and precision. He employs a variety of sounds and pitches ranging from low and growly to high and pure, eventually melding musical effects into an extended piece. He is a virtual human rhythm machine, with the internal beat of the piece well in his imagination and physicality before he starts. The four members of Gimme5 — male singers Joey Blake and Dave Worm and females Rhiannon and Judi Donaghy Vinar — joined McFerrin in each number, finding their places in the vocal framework and often repeating short phrases and musical gestures continuously for as long as 15 minutes. The five solo musicians eventually turned their attention to the Glee Club to add to the sound.

Performing with McFerrin requires being on one’s vocal toes, and although the Glee Club had prepared to the point of giving certain singers microphones for solos and leadership roles, it is likely that the singers had little idea of what to expect throughout the performance. Musically, McFerrin will throw everything but the kitchen sink at his collaborating ensembles in “call-and-response” passages, and the Glee Club well handled the challenge, clearly enjoying every minute of it. Glee Club Director Gabriel Crouch placed himself in the chorus to take part, and several singers sang what appeared to be on-the-spot solos, including an impressive performance from soprano and University junior Allison Spann.

Gimme5 member Joey Blake appeared to be the bass foundation of the performance, solidly providing fundamental repeating pitches to hold the sound together. All members of Gimme5 took their turn leading an extended vocal improvisation, wandering the stage to direct one another, the Glee Club, and audience, turning Richardson Auditorium into a massive impromptu chorus. Rhiannon, who was the lower of the two female voices, demonstrated a particularly primal vocal quality in her improvisation, with a voice well capable of wailing. As an ensemble, Gimme5 was consistently well-tuned and precise.

McFerrin’s style of performance requires phenomenal concentration, and even with his “random musical musings,” he maintained control of the concert. He took his time in setting up the pieces, drawing in other musicians and then floating his individual sound above them all. Most of the words sung in Friday night’s selections seemed rooted in South African languages, with other parts of improvisations on random syllables. All selections fed into McFerrin’s musical philosophy of circlesinging, in which soloists assign vocal parts to all participants in the performance — whether on or offstage — transforming the room into an unceasingly rippling vocal ensemble. The best method for creating new music appreciators is to find a way for people to participate, and in this opening performance of the Princeton University Concerts season, the sold-out house at Richardson became both performer and audience in one evening.