Over its 108 years, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra has brought many of the greatest stars of music before its audiences. Artists such as Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, Dudley Moore, Pearl Bailey, and Hilary Hahn have generated excitement with a wide range of musical styles. Not content with simply bringing in the big names, though, the PSO decided several years ago to go one step farther-to bring in the greatest names of all.

With that idea, the World Artist Series was born. Each season, the PSO plans to showcase a consummate artist in his or her particular field of music at a special, non-subscription concert.

The PSO's first World Artist Series offering, the performance with Yo-Yo Ma in May 2004, exceeded all expectations. Not only was every seat in the Peoria Civic Center Theater filled, but even the theater's orchestra pit was outfitted with folding chairs to accommodate the scores of ticket requests. Artistically, it was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. One can purchase a recording of Yo-Yo Ma performing Dvorak's "Cello Concerto," but experiencing it live with the PSO simply can't be matched.

Soon, the PSO will perform with another artist regarded as a one-of-a-kind musical phenomenon: Bobby McFerrin. On April 9, McFerrin brings his legendary four-octave-range voice and conducting skills to Peoria for a concert that promises to solidify the World Artist Series as an annual event not to be missed. McFerrin will conduct the PSO in performances of Mozart's "Symphony No. 40" and Prokofiev's "Symphony No.1," and then the audience will hear why he's known in Germany as "Der Stimmwunder" (wonder voice). He'll vocalize one part of Vivaldi's "Double Concerto for Cello" as music director David Commanday performs the other part, and then…well, the rest is up to Bobby. Part of the magic of his performances is his incredible ability to improvise with an orchestra, as he believes the best live performances are often unrehearsed.

Despite his 10 Grammy Awards and sales of more than 20 million recordings worldwide, many audiences are unaware of McFerrin's solid credentials. Born into a musical family, his father was an opera singer whose voice is heard dubbing Sidney Poitier in the film version of Porgy and Bess; his mother is a soprano and noted voice teacher. In his youth, Bobby fell in love with the clarinet but switched to piano when orthodontic braces interfered with his playing his chosen instrument. He later formed the Bobby Mack Quartet and toured as a pianist for the Ice Follies.

His vocal gifts couldn't be denied, and at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1980, Bill Cosby arranged for McFerrin to have an early set. He wowed the jazz world that year and soon was collaborating with jazz greats Chick Correa and Herbie Hancock.

Not content with any one musical style, Bobby returned to the music he heard most as a child-the classical repertoire. He studied conducting with masters Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, and a number of recordings followed. Over the past two decades, he's recorded with Yo-Yo Ma-their album, Hush, stayed on the Billboard classical charts for more than two years; the Vienna Philharmonic; and a wide range of other artists, including Robin Williams, the Muppets, and actor Jack Nicholson, with whom he shared a 1987 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Album for How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin.

To be sure, Bobby is immortalized with his 1988 Grammy Award-winning Song of the Year "Don't Worry, Be Happy," which reigned as the number one song in the world for several months that year. However, that ditty, composed in 20 minutes while he was recording a classical album, hasn't been performed in concert by Bobby for well over a decade.

For 2006, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra has landed another outstanding musician, thought by many to be the very best in his field. Coincidentaly, he shares a connection with the first two stars of the series. Pianist Emanuel Ax, who'll headline the World Artist Series May 9, 2006, happens to be the favorite touring and recording partner of Yo-Yo Ma, who, as previously noted, has worked and recorded a number of times with Bobby McFerrin. For the symphony, booking a virtuoso like Ax completes a triumvirate of three straight years of spotlighting the finest musicians in the world.

Emanuel Ax's star began to shine in 1974, when he won the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition at age 25. Most recently, he won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist for his recordings of Haydn's "Piano Sonatas Nos. 29, 31, 34, 35 & 49." Together, Ax and Yo-Yo Ma have won three Grammy Awards with their collaborations.

In Peoria, Ax will perform Brahms' "Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor." This early work of Brahms is widely considered to be one of the finest piano concertos in the repertoire and is impressive in its symphonic proportions. The audience that evening will also be treated to performances of Brahms' "Symphony No.3" and Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Fledermaus Overture."

Indeed, the PSO's World Artist Series continues to bring the top artists to Peoria, but the Symphony's 2005/2006 season is loaded with talent from beginning to end. Pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi, guitarist Sharon Isbin, the Chiara String Quartet, violinist Marcia Henry Liebenow, and 14-year-old piano prodigy Ji-Yong are all slated to solo with the orchestra. Join us for another year of musical adventure. AA!