Changing His Tune

updated 07/24/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 01:00AM

AS BACH'S A-MINOR VIOLIN CONCER-to enfolds the audience, one thing is obvious—but only to the eye, not the ear: that's no violin carrying the solo instrumental line. It's the voice of the dreadlocked man on the conductor's podium—jazz and pop vocalist Bobby McFerrin, tracing Bach's trills and semiquavers with all the agility of a Paganini.

As creative director of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Chamber Orchestra for the last year, McFerrin is making an unusual crossover. It's no longer a big deal when a Luciano Pavarotti or a Jessye Norman sings on an album of popular songs, but a jazz musician taking on the three Bs is still offbeat. McFerrin, who has won 10 Grammys since 1986 and whose 1988 No. 1 hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," leavened George Bush's presidential campaign, doesn't think it's a big deal. "People make all these distinctions," he says, "but it's all the same eight notes."

All the same, McFerrin, who studied at Juilliard, makes them sound fresh. "I've been playing some of these works for 35 years, but Bobby helps me see them in a new way," says St. Paul concertmaster Romuald Tecco.

McFerrin asked for the job with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra after guest conducting in February 1994. "I loved working with this orchestra," he says, "and I felt it would help my work if I could develop a relationship with them over a period of time." Under his two-year contract, McFerrin conducts 45 concerts a year and is free to pursue other projects—such as recording the soundtrack for the Ice Follies version of The Wizard of Oz and conducting the New York Philharmonic in Central Park this summer.

McFerrin's baton work will reach a wider musical audience when the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's CD of works by Mozart, Stravinsky and others reaches stores this month. "People think classical music has to be serious and somber," says the maestro. "I want to show them that it's fun, exciting, beautiful, uplifting."

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