You really had to be there. And many were, as Symphony Center was packed Tuesday night, with extra rows of onstage seating, as well as the usual chorus balcony area fully filled. The event? A one-night-only program titled “New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends,” and I should confess that I entered the hall with a certain amount of doubt about just how it might (or might not) work.
Later, I left the theater in a state of complete exaltation. Not only was I dazzled by Murray’s supremely cagey wit and multifaceted delivery as singer-narrator, and wholly wowed by the sheer brilliance and stylistic virtuosity of his musicians (Vogler on cello; Vogler’s wife, Mira Wang, on violin, and Vanessa Perez, shy but astoundingly talented on piano). But I was completely enchanted by the sublimely chosen, uncannily mixed-and-matched crazy-quilt of selections from American literary classics (by way of Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Billy Collins and James Thurber), paired with music that ranged from Bach, Schubert, Ravel and Shostakovich to the Gershwins, Astor Piazzolla, Stephen Foster, Leonard Bernstein and Van Morrison. And all in just two seamless, profoundly meaningful, hugely entertaining hours.
It began in notably quirky fashion, as one member of the onstage audience displayed a large Cubs “W” banner (the Wilmette-born Murray is a vocal fan), was told to remove it (an order met with loud boos) and then was permitted to drape it as before (to loud cheers). Then, after the lights came up and the performers took their places, Murray realized he’d left his glasses backstage and dashed off to retrieve them. No, not an improv, but a perfect offbeat warmup for the precision-tuned show to follow.
The program’s first excerpt came from an interview with Ernest Hemingway in which the writer was asked by George Plimpton if he could play an instrument. Murray deftly captured Hemingway’s blunt description of how he was pressured to study the cello by his mother, and was rotten at it, at which point the quietly dashing Vogler launched into the Prelude from Bach’s “Suite No. 1 in G Major,” using his golden-toned Stradivari cello to suggest how the instrument can sound when played by a master. From that moment on I was a believer. And because every element of the program was so meticulously connected yet also continually surprising, I will describe exactly how it unspooled.
Murray gave lovely renderings of excerpts from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” and “Song of Myself,” with their dreamy, elegiac musings on the eternal nature of the Earth and the mortal nature of man. And in one of the show’s many incredibly inspired twists, his reading of an excerpt from Cooper’s early 19th century novel “The Deerslayer,” about finding a pristine lake and forest in the New World, was paired with the sweet, fluid melancholy of Schubert’s “Piano Trio No. 1,” played to ravishing effect.
Then it was back to Hemingway, talking about his life in Paris in the 1920s, when he was still a poor writer, with the jazz-infused pulse of Ravel’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano” capturing the moment in music, paired with a tragicomic sex-and-death excerpt from “A Moveable Feast,” recounting an evening Hemingway spent with a painter and the two sisters who were his models. Piazzolla’s fiery tango “La Muerte del angel” was an ideal followup, and was blazingly played by the trio.
From there Murray took on the hilarious biblical antics in the Gershwin brothers’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (from “Porgy and Bess”), with Wang and Perez, using a terrific arrangement by Jascha Heifetz, capturing every jazzy note with the most seductive freedom. Then, without missing a beat, it was back to Piazzolla and his “Oblivion,” played wondrously by the trio, with Wang putting down her violin to create a full scene by dancing a hauntingly slow tango with Murray. From oblivion it was on to “Forgetfulness,” an all-too-true and funny Collins poem about the loss of memory and aging, followed by Foster’s song “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” about the memory of a lost love, and by Van Morrison’s mind-bogglingly funny and twisted rant of an inebriated guy, “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God.” Yes, one little touch of genius after another.
And there was more, including Murray’s fine rendering of the iconic section of Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (later paired with a riff from Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”) in which Huck and Jim, the slave hellbent on freedom, drift along the Mississippi on a raft, and Huck is what we might now say “woke.”
Vogler and Perez teamed for a bravura performance of Shostakovich’s “Sonata in D Minor for Cello and Piano.” And Murray brought it all back home — first with the subtlest political satire, by way of Thurber’s laugh-inducing Civil War tale of how a hung-over Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met the surrendering Gen. Robert E. Lee, and then with a medley from “West Side Story,” whose Stephen Sondheim lyrics for “America” (“Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America! “) seemed newly minted, and had the audience cheering. The many encores came fast and furious as Murray tossed roses into the audience. No one wanted to leave.