Prom 64: Vienna Po / McFerrin

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The Independent Culture

London can be slow to latch on to talents that go beyond typecasting. It took a visit by the Vienna Philharmonic to remind us that Bobby McFerrin was a Leonard Bernstein conducting protégé before he became a virtuoso jazz singer. He has been singing one of the cello parts in a Vivaldi double concerto for some years now. The prospect sounds dire but the reality was quiet, sensitive and amazingly accurate, a bit like the Swingle Singers except that McFerrin goes "dee dee dee" instead of "dabadaba". Interaction with his fellow soloist, the orchestra's principal Tamas Varga, was close, and the piece was short enough to hold a packed audience spellbound.

He uses some African technique, microphone skill, and a level of vocal control that can create the illusion of harmony by rapid switching between tune and bass line. He got the audience, without any preparation, to sing Gounod's Ave Maria glitch-free, while he accompanied with the Bach Prelude that Gounod built it on: a born conductor if ever there was one. As if to rub it in, his encore was the end of Rossini's William Tell overture with the orchestra singing instead of playing - a tour de force that drew a standing ovation.

Oh yes, the conducting: very straightforward, plenty of detail but no fuss, with a way of making his speeds feel just right - steady with well placed accents. This worked well in Mozart and Prokofiev and compensated for missing nervous energy in Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice, but couldn't prevent a bit of a battering at the climax of Ravel's Bolero.

Zubin Mehta's programme of orchestral showpieces was a throwback to his early years, and a reminder that still nobody does them better. Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade turned out to be this season's revelation of a hackneyed classic, a performance of intense energy and lyrical ardour in which familiar detail came up fresh without any novelty for novelty's sake; just the music as it ought to be.

The orchestra itself has energy and intensity in spades. Subtlety used to be another matter, and in Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements the predominantly loud playing was stronger on ensemble than balance, relying on rhythmic impetus to maintain a sense of urgency. The same composer's Petrushka announced a major improvement. Woodwind playing showed real character, and the layers of scoring had consistent clarity within a dramatic scenario of tumultuous momentum, bringing continuity where the work often falls into sections: brilliant, wholehearted and irresistible.

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