By Thomas May
Chamber music is all about knowing how to forge close partnerships. For the world-renowned cellist Jan Vogler, that instinct includes connecting to artists beyond the classical-music sphere. But he didn’t expect a serendipitous encounter with Bill Murray to lead to one of the most innovative projects he has ever undertaken.
“The nature of this project was based in a friendship first. Only by starting to work together did we discover new ways to perform together,” Vogler told me during an interview shortly before the US premiere of Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds, which took place in July as part of the Festival Napa Valley, kicking off their American tour. “It’s a beautiful thing in our business that you can start with a friendship—and then you begin collaborating. It’s almost an ideal way to make art, to feel that artistic connection and mutual trust at first.”
In 2013, Vogler and Murray chanced to be flying together to New York from Germany, where the legendary actor was filming. Murray’s quips about the challenges of traveling with a priceless cello sparked a conversation, and the two soon found themselves intrigued by each other’s artistic passions. Murray went to see Vogler at work in Dresden, meanwhile inviting the cellist to attend the annual Poets House walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, where he was featured as a special guest.
Vogler was moved by witnessing the multi-talented Murray recite Walt Whitman’s poetry during that trek across the iconic span. “It was amazing—policemen and firemen stopped by to listen.” Born in former East Germany in 1964, the cellist fondly recalls his own discovery of classic American writers in the library his father kept—“in German translations, of course.”
Gradually, the idea behind New Worlds took shape as a weave of literary recitation and musical performance by a trio (with Vogler joined by violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez). What clinched it, recalls Vogler, was when he took his kids to see the 2016 film Jungle Book, in which Murray makes a memorable impression as Mowgli’s friend Baloo, the bear, singing “The Bare Necessities.” Vogler realized that in addition to his gift for reciting poetry, Murray was a captivating vocalist. (Re-watch his karaoke scene in Lost in Translation from 2003.)
“I didn’t want to limit the program to having the musicians play and the actor just reciting texts,” remarks Vogler, noting that, under such a schematic division of labor, “the energy doesn’t quite build. It always stays a little bit lukewarm.” As they began fashioning the program over the past year—trying it out initially on audiences in Germany—this issue of finding the right pacing proved to be crucial.
“Even with audiences not familiar with the language, the energy build-up worked. In the show, we start out at a calm level, with the music and reading separate.” Murray’s involvement as the program progresses includes singing and dancing, resulting in multiple “peaks of energy,” Vogler says. “You can only do this with an artist who is so versatile.” Murray’s sense of timing not only as a comic genius but as a veteran actor creates an energizing counterpoint with the balance of spontaneity and precision inherent in good chamber music.
“The focus is on ‘the great core of American music and literature and how this influenced the values of American society.’’’
New Worlds was officially unveiled at this year’s Dresden Music Festival in June—where Vogler has been intendant since 2008—and reflects the fascination he shares with Murray for the connections between music and literature. They developed the program last fall over discussions at the cellist’s home in New York. These involved Vogler playing lots of records for Murray as the pair explored implicit narrative links between the musical selections. The title refers to the mutual interplay between European and American culture, but the focus is on “the great core of American music and literature and how this influenced the values of American society.”
The program opens, for example, with Murray reading from a late interview with Hemingway in which he mentions his training as a cellist in his youth, which segues into Vogler performing the Prelude from Bach’s
G major Cello Suite. “Then Bill comes out and reads excerpts from Whitman. So this is the entrance to the world of great literature and music—Bach and Whitman. Then we become more specific.”
The Hemingway-Paris association leads to a touch of blues by way of Ravel, while Schubert’s apparent fondness for James Fenimore Cooper inspired the idea (Vogler says it was Murray’s) of reading one of the landscape descriptions from The Deerslayer to a Schubert piano trio excerpt. “It was a true collaboration with Bill, this idea of poetry and music combined,” says Vogler. “It’s not about pop culture. Bill is very knowledgeable about classical music. He had some of his friends, like James Downey, who used to write for Saturday Night Live, come by and also suggest ideas.”
Much of the fascination of New Worlds lies in such unexpected connections. Astor Piazzolla’s expressive tangos are also part of the mix, but the musical “narrative” is largely drawn from American composers who helped define their respective eras with a widespread appeal: Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein. Murray’s signature irreverent humor has a place here, to be sure—a comic peak arrives courtesy of James Thurber—yet the show incorporates moments of profound melancholy, especially in the sections devoted to Truman Capote and Mark Twain.
Anyone expecting nothing more than a series of stand-up comedy skits with light musical background is in for an eye- and ear-opener. New Worlds traces “an overall arc from universal art to something more personal,” according to Vogler. “I think people will be surprised by the depth and meaning of this program. I do feel in today’s times that we need to remember what the values of our society and our country are. It’s meaningful to see this in visionaries like Mark Twain or Gershwin, who created art way ahead of historical developments.”
The chemistry among the performers also helped form the program. “We have developed a really good friendship so that the sensibility of playing together onstage can be different each time and continue to develop,” says Mira Wang, who is married to Vogler, shortly after the Festival Napa Valley performance. “I’m especially excited about the way great American literature and classical music are intertwined here into a new art form.”
For Vogler, great chamber music happens “when you have very strong characters and everybody is very present in the moment and at the same time. I’ve always felt that true music is about explosion, not harmony between players. My best chamber-music experiences happen when everyone has very strong ideas and temperament.”
Vogler knew pianist Vanessa Perez from a previous collaboration (for his 2008 Tango! Astor Piazzolla album) and asked her to join the New Worlds project “because she has such a warm, big heart. For this you need a cast of people who enjoy being together.” The fact that New Worlds is the work of such an internationally diverse team—whose origins include Germany (Vogler), China (Wang), and Venezuela (Perez)—is also noteworthy.
Openness to influences beyond a constricted sphere are essential to art, the cellist believes. “I often look at visual arts and find inspiration for my work. My strong belief is that it should not come exclusively from classical music. I think this is a project that will open many hearts to classical music in a new way but also open our minds to a different way of looking at our work. That’s the beauty of collaborating with a great artist who changes your life and views.”
At press time, a recording of the inaugural tour program of Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds was scheduled to be released in September. They conclude their US fall tour in mid-October at Carnegie Hall, with a world tour to follow in 2018.