Atlanta vocalist Virginia Schenck studied with voice master Bobby McFerrin back in 2007, and it rocked her world.
A jazz musician, she was accustomed to coloring outside the lines. But McFerrin took that liberty to radical extremes. “It really freed me up,” she said recently, “even out of the traditional jazz forms … I call it off-road driving.”
Schenck will steer into the wild with McFerrin again on Friday, Nov. 30, when she joins him on stage at Symphony Hall in a concert titled “Bobby McFerrin & Gimme5: Circlesongs.”
>> RELATED: McFerrin's Gimme5 brings spontaneous compositions to Symphony Hall
McFerrin, of the four-octave voice, has plentiful vocal resources on his own, but he has assembled a considerable army of helpers, including his quintet, Gimme5; a 13-person choir led by Schenck; and the 85-voice Clark Atlanta Philharmonic Society Choir.
All will serve Nov. 30 as building materials for the sonic skyscraper that is a McFerrin performance. McFerrin creates music on the fly, teaching it to his collaborators — and sometimes to the audience — while on stage, inventing symphonies and motets out of thin air.
“The most exciting thing about it is that he improvises these riffs and hands them out,” said Schenck, “and you’re singing in polyphonic form instantly. It is exhilarating. It’s like composing out loud.”
McFerrin delights in music as a form of play, said Schenck, “so I think we’ll just be his playmates, at his beck and call. It really is Bobby’s playground, and it’s ours, too.”
Bobby McFerrin became an international earworm with his 1988 hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The song’s blithe cheerfulness in the face of (name whatever catastrophe you care to bemoan) brought about much criticism, but that didn’t stop it from going to No. 1 and earning three Grammys.
McFerrin went on to specialize in spontaneous composition at performances, assembling different vocal ensembles to join him in these endeavors. He has also guest conducted orchestras from Chicago to London, performing much of the classical repertoire.
After that 2007 encounter, Schenck continued studying with McFerrin and his longtime collaborator Rhiannon over the next three years, and teaching their techniques to high school students. The experience, she said, gave her the license to try out new things with her own ensemble.
That includes breaking a song down in the middle, coming back together, going into free improvisation and what verges on performance art. “We’re going to go somewhere, then bring the audience back together, and send them home.”
Schenck worked for many years as a music therapist, and a belief in the healing power of music is something she shares with her fellow McFerrin conspirators.
That includes Atlanta vocalist Elise Witt, who also has studied with Rhiannon and McFerrin, and is part of Schenck’s 13-voice chorale.
Witt said that McFerrin’s performances are emotionally powerful, not just because of his talent as a musician, but because of his ability to draw the audience in to the experience. “Yes, he’s going to create amazing music, but we’re going to be part of that. Everyone. Not just those on stage,” she said. “It’s like, he gives us back the power to sing.”
Fellow Atlanta music icon Tommy Dean, who has also studied with Rhiannon and McFerrin, and is part of Schenck’s chorus, said, “This practice is all about deep listening, being present to the moment, and listening to where the music might want to go. It can be like a singing game, and it can be like a singing prayer circle, and about anything in between.”
McFerrin has said of his performances, “I want everyone to leave the theater and sing in their own kitchens the next morning.”
• Bobby McFerrin, with Gimme5 and the Clark Atlanta Philharmonic Society Choir. 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30. $70-$135. Atlanta Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4200, atlantasymphony.org.
• Virginia Schenck also will perform with the world music ensemble Free Planet Radio, featuring bassist Eliot Wadopian, percussionist River Guerguerian and multi-instrumentalist Chris Rosser, in a winter solstice show. 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1; free food tastings by Sun in My Belly and Mystic Roots Catering, 7 p.m. $25; students, $10. Fernbank Science Center's planetarium, 156 Heaton Park Drive, Atlanta. fernbank.edu.
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