The movie star’s vanity side rock band or pretentious music project has become something of a cliched joke over the decades, but leave it to national sardonic treasure Bill Murray to take that joke and turn it into an original and marvelous new kind of performance art.
Murray’s New Worlds tour, presented here by the Houston Symphony, hit Jones Hall April 16 to break new boundaries on what a classical music concert can become. This collaboration between Murray and internationally acclaimed cellist Jan Vogler, brings classical, mostly European, music and American literature together to collide and create beautiful new melodies.
The kindred-spirited friends Murray and Vogler brought in renowned pianist Vanessa Perez and violist Mira Wang to complete this very unique quartet. Described in the program as showcase demonstrating how writers and composers have built bridges between American and Europe through the arts, the title of the project, New Worlds is perhaps something of a misnomer. Throughout the evening, Murray and Vogler explored old musical and literary worlds and works in new ways, while highlighting the connections between artists and art forms across time and the world.
The concert began with Murray reading an excerpt from a Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway where he admits to knowing how to play the cello, very badly. Murray’s recitation quickly dissolved into Vogler’s masterly rendition of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. And so the night went, with one art form and one artist blending into another: from Murray reciting a passage from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer flowing into Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No.1 In B Flat, to a haunting rendition of Ravel’s Sonata in G Major for Violin and Piano becoming Murray’s very amusing take on the real-life character of painter Jules Pascin as depicted in Hemingway memoir A Moveable Feast.
For those concert-goers who wouldn’t know their Mark Twain from George Gershwin, and were solely there for the guy from Ghostbusters — or at the very least to get an up close, in-person look at Houston's own Wes Anderson’s most craggy-distinguished muse — it’s doubtful they were disappointed.
Murray brought a lot of laughs to the proceedings, from several self-deprecating asides that whole rows tend to leave during the heavy classical sections, to running into the audience to fling roses to the screaming (Jones Hall decorum-filled screams of course) fans during the encore. And after the quartet’s West Side Story medley, we might as well just shut down all the Leonard Bernstein’s 100 years birthday celebrations because Murray’s “I Feel Pretty,” complete with coquettish posing, is now the definitive version. No need for future imitations, fellow pretty divas.
Murray broke into a kind of talk-singing song several times during the evening, and while he’ll probably never be described as a pitch perfect singer, the emotional depth he gave to the lyrics moved the audience as much as he brought laughter. Accompanied by piano, violin and cello, his take on Marty Robbins's “El Paso” gave an almost operatic depth to the cowboy standard.
Throughout the over two hours concert, including a half hour encore, these New World explorers continued to astonish with their musical and literary range. Above all, they showed that even with a hefty lineup of composers and writers like Bach, Hemingway, Shostakovich, and Whitman, art done right can bring grand lightness and joy to an old and cynical world.