The ultimate message of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony could be boiled down to one simple phrase: Don't worry, be happy. So it's an inevitable vehicle for vocal acrobat, composer and conductor Bobby McFerrin, who led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Morgan State University Choir and an energetic quartet of soloists in a performance of the Ninth last night at Meyerhoff Hall.
Another, meatier message in the Ode to Joy finale of the symphony - "You millions, be embraced; this kiss is for the whole world" - was imaginatively underlined before McFerrin got to the Ninth. In the program's first half, he devoted much of his vocal improv (an obligatory part of every McFerrin concert) to what seemed like an extended riff on world music. Bits of Asian- and African-style tunes emerged, along with some throaty outbursts not unlike the songs made by humpback whales.
With the Morgan chorus taking his cues for harmonic pitches and catchy rhythmic pulses, and a group of BSO string players trying their hand at all sorts of sound effects and melodic counterpoint, McFerrin stirred up quite a lot of spontaneous activity onstage. He has invented more riveting material in previous engagements here, but there certainly were effective moments - much more effective than his opening wordless solo. (That passage, complete with his trademark chest-pounding for percussion, kept wandering amorphously until some cell phones ringing in the hall prompted his vocalized responses.)
There was room on the first half, too, for the Morgan singers, led by Nathan Carter, to sing a couple of McFerrin's religious compositions. His version of the 23rd Psalm was harmonically attractive and had a little provocative tweaking - a "She" does the leading to green pastures in this case.
McFerrin played it straight with Beethoven. Too straight. For the first three movements, his interpretation suggested a very well executed case of paint-by-numbers. All the notes were in their place, but there was little sense of mystery and portent at the opening of the first movement; not enough dynamic impact in the Scherzo; and only surface-skimming in the profound Adagio.
Although he conducted from memory, McFerrin did not exert the kind of authority that such a weighty symphony requires (his stick technique alone - mostly free-form swirls - prevents that), or the kind of individuality that can make the familiar music grab you.
But once he reached the finale - more specifically, the spot in the finale where the singing starts - McFerrin exerted more personality. Although he still missed opportunities to put a distinctly expressive spin on a phrase, he caught the bear-hug nature of Beethoven's concept. The whole last section of the movement, from the solo quartet on, had admirable passion and vividness; the orchestra's mad-dash coda came off with particular flair.
Throughout, the BSO played firmly. The Morgan choir, as usual, did itself proud. About 75 voices strong, the ensemble sounded three times that size in the most feverish moments. The sopranos held on firmly in the highest reaches; the men produced a full, balanced tone.
Mark S. Doss, with his sturdy, hall-filling bass and finely articulated phrasing, was the stand-out in the quartet.
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 8 tonight
Tickets: limited availability