Has Bill Murray just upended classical music?

Has Bill Murray just upended classical music?


norman lebrecht

October 11, 2017

From Chicago pianist Lori Kaufman:

Nobody knew what to expect. Probably a quirky, Midwest-voweled reading of Ogden Nash or TS Eliot, you know, conventional texts that are suitable for a concert hall. Instead, a sold-out Chicago Symphony Center Tuesday night witnessed everything they knew about classical music upended by a two-hour hug from actor Bill Murray.

The comedic icon brought his elegant-playing friends on stage for a meditation on American poetry and European music that married common and uncommon threads while breaking all rules, including saying the N-word out loud. Great musicians know how to make a concert hall smaller and smaller. By the end of the evening, 2,500 of us felt  Murray whispering the secret to life directly in our ear, as he famously did to Scarlet Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation.

Nothing was lost here, though, as Murray took us through a love letter to Hemingway, the existential pain of depressed French painters, nature seekers Walt Whitman and James Fenimore Cooper, our nation’s hapless political history, the gospel according to Van Morrison, his beloved comeback kids of baseball, the  Chicago Cubs, and a heartrending, perfectly-voiced reading  of Huck Finn’s self-revelatory paean to releasing slaves.

Each time we thought we saw the most poignant moment of the evening, Murray and colleagues Jan Vogler, Mira Wang, and Vanessa Perez added another layer of intimacy and depth to the performance, astoundingly elevating and giving new life to some of the most cliched musical works. Perez shone new pearls in her pianissimo phrases of “I Dream Of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” and she and cellist Vogler somehow made “Moon River,” formerly concerto for elevator and disgruntled riders, into something newly profound.

Murray shot us right through the heart when he took violinist Wang’s hand and danced a soulful tango with her onstage to the accompaniment of tango master Astor Piazolla. In the middle of Wang’s virtuoso reading of Heifetz’s showy version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Murray shocked us all by singing the Gershwin lyrics better than anyone since Satchmo. Murray’s singing was the best gift of the evening, in a rousing version of “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God” that made soulful melancholy an art form.

But that was only a warm up: The cornerstone was a homage to centenarian Leonard Bernstein. Murray crooned a gut wrenching yet dignified “Somewhere” and immediately turned tears into giddy laughter with his barnstorming and unimaginable rendition of “I Feel Pretty.” He then teased and defied the most famous rhythmic motive in all of musical theatre by singing “I Like To Be in America” in his own invented way, underlining five words of Sondheim’s as an anthem for the woes of 2017, ending the concert by punctuating “Puerto Rico’s in America” to an avalanche of applause.

We thought we would get our Ogden Nash when Vogler and Perez started playing “The Swan” during the drawn out encore session. But Murray surprised us  again, narrating Lucille Clifton’s stunning “Blessing the Boats,”  sending us off with a graceful benediction.

If you are anywhere near New York, do whatever it takes to see and hear these four musicians make miracles anew at Carnegie Hall on October 16.


  • David says:

    Talented people do extraordinary things!

  • boringfileclerk says:

    I found the whole “Bill Murray Does Classical” thing vulgar. There was no point to the project. Who was the intended audience? Was it hipsters, wannabe hipsters, or people who know nothing about music? One thing is for certain- it wasn’t intended for those who love music.

    • Jim says:

      Wow, what an unbelievably stuck up, arrogant statement!

    • Michael says:

      It surely was not intended for people like you! Sorry it makes you so angry.

    • Haydn 70 says:

      BORINGFILECLERK is spot on. This was nothing more than showbiz BS.

      • Michael says:

        so say the “experts” on music. Maybe it is just not your cup of tea.

        • Mikey says:

          or maybe they music experts are right and you simply aren’t in a place to understand that this is just tacky showbiz BS.

          • Michael says:

            really? really? I was only trying to say that music is in the ear of the beholder, there is no such thing as good and bad music, only personal taste. Are we all the last word on what is “worthy” music. Come down from your high horse please.

          • buxtehude says:

            I don’t expect anybody here wants to snatch favorite music out of the ear of any beholder, especially yours — you know your rights!

            Trouble is your formulation of No Such Thing as good or bad, only personal opinion, which is sacred, plus the heat of your expression, is of a piece with the assault on learning, expertise, even talent, which has yielded up as an early harvest Donald J Trump and Brexit.

            I think you’re the one a high horse. It my experience it pays to consider others’ contrary opinion — they might even be right.

  • Sam says:

    Vanessa Perez is a wonderful pianist! She has a stunning album of Da Falla and Debussy on the Steinway label, and an equally acclaimed recording of the complete Chopin Preludes on Telarc. It’s just great that Bill Murray found this top class pianist hiding in plain sight in New York to join him on his musical journey.


  • Robert Holmén says:

    The guy who replaced Chevy Chase has certainly carved out a varied and impressive career.

  • Sue says:

    Sorry, Bill, your pitch has fallen into the cracks between the notes on this!! Rescued by excellent musicians. I couldn’t help thinking of “Ed Wood”.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Yes, he has upended classical music just like the previous revolutionaries Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg. Nothing will ever be the same again.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    ” In the middle of Wang’s virtuoso reading of Heifetz’s showy version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Murray shocked us all by singing the Gershwin lyrics better than anyone since Satchmo.” What a preposterous claim. Is the review a joke?

  • MacroV says:

    Three great musicians and one of the greatest of living actors try something a little different – are we really so hidebound and closed-minded to object?

    • Adrienne says:

      “and one of the greatest of living actors”

      You think?

    • V. Lind says:

      Ever seen The Razor’s Edge? Worst performance by an actor I ever saw. I daresay he got better. But that whole SNL crowd tended to make me gag in anything longer than an 8-minute sketch.

    • boringfileclerk says:

      Greatest actors? Have you seen his Garfield movies, or Scrooged for that matter?

      • MacroV says:

        Olivier made some stinkers, too. And as Michael Caine said, when asked about “Blame it on Rio,” – “I haven’t seen it. But I’ve seen the house it built…and it’s a lovely house.”

        • Mikey says:

          and Bill Murray is neither an Olivier nor a Caine.
          while you’re at it, why not laud the merits of Adam Sandler.

      • Robert Holmén says:

        Murray signed to do the Garfield movies after confusing the screen writers name with a better more accomplished one’s.

        The voices for animated movies are pieced together one phrase at a time. I wouldn’t judge any actor by the result, good or bad. It’s the work of an editor.

        In “Open Season” they needed Ashton Kutcher to come back in to record a new line to cover a script change. He couldn’t make it. They pieced it together from lines he had already recorded. Unnoticeable.

  • Steve P says:

    Well, it is Bill Murray, so the sublime and ironic are likely intermixed more than any of us will ever know. Best just to go rewatch “Kingpin” or “Groundhog Day” to get your fix. This thing looks…awkward. In a bad vaudeville kinda way.

  • RW2013 says:

    I saw something similar in Köln a few weeks ago
    In the end the music won hands down.

    • Paul says:

      Hey, I played in that!

      I see the similarities, but I don’t think we were trying to do the same thing.

      Marcel Beyer is a fantastic writer, and he was great to work with. But he’s a poet, not an actor. The performance was all about him and his words, and the music was only meant to enhance his material.

      • RW2013 says:

        Yes, the fantastic speaking bass player!
        Enhancing or not, the music, playing (soli!) and arrangements were superb, and I was sorry when the evening was over after only 1:20.
        Maybe someone (you?) could have worked a little on Mr. Beyer’s english when reading T.S.Eliot – “not with a barng…)! Also more modulation of the speaking (as you yourself did).
        Meckern auf hohen Niveau!
        A great EM evening which deserved more audience.

  • csquarcialupi says:

    I attended the performance by Mr. Murray and Friends in California. Yes, it was different. But it was also revelatory. To paraphrase the late, great Virgil Fox, the critics have corks up their emotions.

  • Elwood J. Freese says:

    The review is a cliché-ridden piece of pseudo-journalism. But I found the performance clip quite amusing, after having watched Ghostbusters (1984) the previous evening on DVD. Murray should be billed (no pun intended) as Dr. Venkman.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    The latest reporting is that Murray had an outburst at a VIP reception afterwards. The reception cost $150 and fans were assured they could have a photo taken with Murray. But he became angry when some people got out their phones and started photographing him while still waiting in line.

    “It was an unfortunate end to a wonderful evening. We planned the VIP reception as well as we could, and our staff did a terrific job ensuring our patrons were accommodated appropriately,” Dana Navarro, CSO Association manager for communications and public relations, said in a statement provided to the Tribune on Thursday. (from Tribune article)

    “Navarro said attendees were allowed to take photos during the reception except at the moment when the CSO’s photographer was taking their photo with Murray.”

    “As the night wore on, Murray shifted to taking photos with groups, instead of with individuals and couples, in front of the CSO backdrop. Kennedy said a woman said she preferred to be photographed with only Murray and her husband instead of with a group of strangers.

    “(Murray) yells at her, ‘We don’t want your sour puss in our group picture. Get out of here. Get out of here,’” said Kennedy, 35. “Everybody was like, is he just trying to be funny or is he for real right now? It was pretty uncomfortable to watch this.”

    Kennedy said Murray left shortly after that exchange, and CSO staff told attendees left in line to contact patron services if they wanted a refund or tickets to a future show. Navarro said refunds have been issued to those who have asked for them.” (all from Chicago Tribune article)

    • buxtehude says:

      So much for that VIP ticket for Carnegie Hall I’ve been saving up for.

      Anybody remember how Dudley Moore use to sprinkle his Hollywood limelight on classical music? As in the Richard Stoltzman episode of his BBC series “Concerto!”?

      Come back to us my Dudley mon, come back, all is forgiven!

  • buxtehude says:

    Murray and cellist Vogler have just spoken on WQXR, NY’s NPR station. He made it clear this is a civic project, “a fresh reminder of what the great American ideals are”. Hence the heat.

    There’s already a CD and Murray’s Ain’t Necessarily So rendition aired. I think he has the makings of a (mic-assisted) vocal personality but his variation on the original Gershwin vocal line does not improve it and, worse, he fails in his phrasing and dynamics to put his (and Sportin’ Life’s) whole point across, namely that the bible is full of applesauce.

    The exercise seems ill-prepared & vain: he does not, as J E Gardiner would put it, “connect with the text”.

  • Marc Shulgold says:

    Didja see Murray and company perform on Colbert? Bill was so horribly bad that I literally had to turn off the TV. The “West Side Story” medley began with a hideously off-key “Somewhere” and was followed by — no joke here — “I Feel Pretty,” with no change of lyrics to reflect Murray’s gender. When the trio kicked into “America,” I was out of there. The trio, of course, played wonderfully. Hey, I liked Murray in things like “Groundhog Day” and “Stripes.” But this was unforgivable.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    A report from the couple insulted by Murray (from the Chicago Tribune):

    “Chicago-area bank exec describes how Bill Murray berated his wife

    St. Charles couple Joe and Susanna Vitale paid hundreds of dollars to have a professional photo taken with Bill Murray at a VIP reception after his Tuesday performance at Symphony Center. They got a tongue-lashing instead.

    Joe Vitale, a vice president at MB Financial Bank, said he and his wife expected to meet the Wilmette-raised comedian for 10 seconds and have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra photographer snap their picture at a pizza and beer event that cost $150 per ticket — on top of the money they paid to see Murray perform with cellist Jan Vogler and others earlier Tuesday evening.

    Dozens of attendees got their professional shot with Murray, but as the night continued, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member seemed to get agitated by people taking pictures of him with their cellphones as they waited in line. Murray started encouraging groups of fans, instead of individuals and couples, to stand in front of the CSO backdrop with him so the photographer could get their shots.

    Susanna Vitale was visibly upset because she didn’t pay to have her picture taken with strangers.

    “(Murray) looked at my wife, he actually pointed to her, and he said, ‘No sour face. Get out of here. You’re not part of the picture.’ And then he kind of left … and then he came back to us and then he looked at my wife and he pointed at her again and he said, ‘If you don’t like it, you can move to St. Croix,’” said Joe Vitale, who was confused by Murray’s remark. Vitale said he put his arm around his wife’s waist to try to defuse the situation.

    “And then he came back to us, looked at us, and I might have to paraphrase this, but this is the gist of what he said. He said, ‘You know how many people are waiting for me in this room? There are five people waiting for me. Do you know how many people are waiting for you? One and he’s standing right next to you. That’s it, sour face, get out.’”

    Murray, 67, left the reception shortly thereafter. Joe Vitale said there were still several people left in line who didn’t get their photo taken with Murray. CSO Association manager for communication and public relations Dana Navarro called it an “unfortunate end to a wonderful evening” and said refunds were issued. Murray’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

    “We were really disappointed for a lot of reasons because it wasn’t what the expectation was, it wasn’t what we paid for. The performance was great,” said Joe Vitale, who got a refund. “Doesn’t matter what city you’re in, those actions are completely unacceptable. You would never think that he would do that to Chicagoans, you know, his hometown.”

    Murray appeared to be in better spirits Thursday on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” where he performed with Vogler, gave away T-shirts to the audience and reminisced about growing up in Wilmette.”