Critic's Notebook: Bill Murray, Classical Music's Unlikeliest Star

Courtesy of Jennifer Taylor
Bill Murray performing at Carnegie Hall

The veteran actor thrills a Carnegie Hall crowd with his recitations and singing in a show promoting 'New Worlds,' his chart-topping collaboration with a classical trio led by cellist Jan Vogler.

As Bill Murray jokingly explained on Monday night, the way to get to Carnegie Hall is no longer practice. It's Uber.

If the sight of the iconic actor, clad in an elegant black tuxedo, onstage at the storied venue seemed a bit incongruous, all you had to do was look at Billboard 's classical music chart. There, sitting at No. 1, is New Worlds (Decca Gold), a collaboration between Murray and a classical music trio led by cellist Jan Vogler. Featuring Murray reciting literary pieces to musical accompaniment and performing songs by the likes of Stephen Foster, Van Morrison and George Gershwin, the album represents a distinct change of pace for this artistically restless performer.

Appearing at Carnegie Hall as part of a national tour, Murray demonstrated yet again that at this point in his career, he can pretty much do whatever he wants. And if that means reading poems by Walt Whitman to the music of Franz Schubert, so be it. The sold-out crowd reacted as if he was doing a live version of Ghostbusters.

On disc, the artistic hybrid frequently comes across as both underwhelming and overacted. But thanks to Murray's inherent charisma and effortless ability to thrill a crowd, performed live it played as alternately amusing and touching. Who, after all, can resist a show in which the central performer doesn't receive roses at the conclusion, but instead exuberantly throws a bouquet's worth of them to the crowd?

The program was heavy on Americana, with Murray reading excerpts from Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the musicians performed pieces by the likes of Ravel and Bach. The Huck Finn selection, delivered by Murray with a ragged Southern accent, featured Vogler performing Henry Mancini's "Moon River," which, other than its reference to "my huckleberry friend," calls to mind Holly Golightly more than Twain's teenage scamp.

It was when Murray began singing as well as reciting that the evening truly came alive. Halfway through the musicians' rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So" from Porgy and Bess (as arranged by Jasha Heifetz, no less), the actor suddenly rose and launched into song. Exaggerating the folksiness of the lyrics, he turned the number into a comedy routine and soon had the audience singing and swaying along.

Murray's demeanor was more serious at other times. He introduced Foster's "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" with a story about the composer having possibly written the song to win back his ex-wife. Murray's half-spoken, half-sung rendition was unexpectedly moving, rescuing the vintage number from kitschiness. His baritone voice is pleasant enough, though nothing to write home about, but if he didn't hit all the musical notes he certainly hit the emotional ones. The same was true of his impassioned take on Van Morrison's "When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God," performed with a feverish intensity that flirted with, but never succumbed to, bathos.

The "musical surprise" promised in the program turned out to be Tom Waits' "The Piano Has Been Drinking," which Murray, affecting a drunken slur, milked to fun comic effect. Less successful was his garish performance of several songs from West Side Story, including "I Feel Pretty," which mainly recalled his lounge-singer character from Saturday Night Live. The medley did, however, produce the evening's most memorable moment when Murray, while singing "America," forcefully shouted out the phrase "Puerto Rico's in America!" as the audience erupted into cheers.

The musicians, who in addition to Vogler included Mira Wang on violin and Vanessa Perez on piano, were given their own chance to shine with short classical pieces. But the evening's obvious raison d'etre was Murray, who exuded good-humored charm. As the trio performed a piece by Astor Piazzolla, he strolled over to violinist Wang and whispered in her ear. She smiled broadly and put down her instrument, and the two were soon dancing a tango.

After the program's final selection, Murray returned with the musicians to perform several encores that thoughtfully included an announcement of the score of the Yankees game. He seemed reluctant to leave the stage, and judging by the rapturous response of the audience, no one wanted him to. Few performers could have gotten away with this adventurously eclectic evening. But then again, few performers are as beloved as Bill Murray.