“New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends” was unlike anything I’d seen before.
The Sunday night program at the Holland Center opened with Murray austerely reciting part of George Plimpton’s famous interview of author Ernest Hemingway, then moved into a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Cello by instrumentalist Jan Vogler — a simple piece, exquisitely played.
In just a few minutes, you knew you were in for something unusual, especially from Murray, who’s known for his work on “Saturday Night Live” and “Groundhog Day” as well as some acclaimed dramatic roles. The program combined poetry and prose readings, classical, jazz and show music in a mostly serious vein, though Murray, Vogler, violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez wove in lighthearted moments as well.
The show was compelling not only for its excellent performers, but for what you learned along the way.
Murray sang a melancholy version of “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” after providing background that Stephen Foster wrote the mournful song after breaking up with his wife. He delivered passages from Hemingway’s memoir about living in Paris, “A Moveable Feast,” with flair and droll French accents. I’ve never read the book, but Murray made me want to buy a copy.
He also piqued my interest in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” with his rowdy version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
The program introduced me — and, no doubt, others — to some wonderful music, like the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 2 .
Much thought went into the marriage of music and words. One notable example was Murray’s entertaining reading from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, with Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” as bookends.
It wasn’t so serious as to be ponderous: Murray blithely danced his way through “I Feel Pretty” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The Chicago-area native also led the audience a rollicking version of “Go Cubs Go” in honor of his favorite Major League Baseball team.
“There are some people here celebrating tonight,” he said, presumably a nod to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who was in the audience. Members of the Ricketts family own the Cubs franchise.
Amid several encores, Murray made his way through the Kiewit Concert Hall, tossing red roses to fans, even those in the balconies — bad news for those who left early.