Serendipity has brought illustrious German cellist Jan Vogler and iconic Hollywood actor,
Bill Murray to the steps of the Sydney Opera House today. The pair are in town to perform in their New Worlds show, which is a unique quartet-driven work consisting of a seamless
marriage of classical pieces accompanied to excerpts of classical American writers, as spoken by Murray.
All of this stemmed from a chance meeting aboard a commercial flight decades ago and
Murray is the first to share his memory of that fateful moment.
‘We were boarding an Air Berlin flight from Berlin to Newark,’ he says. ‘I saw Jan carrying this strange-shaped box and I said – “Are you going to be able to fit that into the overhead compartment?” – And he looked at me like I had a head wound or something and said – “No it has it’s own seat, sir,” – and not only did it have its own seat in first-class, it had a window seat in first class.’
And that was that. Though the famous pair got along famously, it would be many more years before they would eventually collaborate on what would become the New Worlds show.
During the interim, they kept in close contact, including attending one another’s respective shows.
‘I went and saw Jan play with the New York Philharmonic in Dresden,’ Murray says. ‘And I
invited him to a poetry bridge walk we do in Manhattan on Brooklyn Bridge and then, after that, he supposedly, allegedly, heard me singing in The Jungle Book.’
Vogler laughs at the mention of that. ‘I took my kids to the movie,’ he confides, ‘and thought – wow, this is great, we have a lot of elements here.’
Though essential elements were accounted for from the outset, Murray and Vogler still
needed to go about readying a feature-length show. They attribute some of the resultant success to their use of classical pieces – abiding by the adage – don’t fix something that’s not broken.
‘That’s the money move, if you’re going to do this, get someone else to write the music,’
Murray explains. ‘To shape the show though, that was really Jan’s sense of the historical
perspective of American music influenced by European music and vice versa, there’s this
exchange and the music and the literature were all affected by the music and the writing.’
So, then, with both Vogler and Murray highly aware of each other’s strengths and how best to utilise them, one wonders if they have ever found themselves at odds, or in disagreement, about any aspect of the show.
Vogler’s the first to answer. ‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I think that the chemistry was great from
the beginning, as we both also wanted to create something which was not just joining
literature with music – because we thought that would be boring. With Bill being able to sing, and an actor, and being able to read and us being able to play, it makes our show very broad and very wide.’
Murray follows on in his own words. ‘When there’s something like a lump in the gravy, we
all look at it and see it the same way, we solve it as a group.’
Admittedly unorthodox, their recipe has nevertheless ensured more smooth gravy than lumps, as indicated by their being able to so easily draw a huge crowd and at the iconic Sydney Opera House serving as a venue no less!
At the mention of said venue for the New Worlds show, talk turns to marvelling at the
building’s inimitable architecture.
‘It looks like a Conquistadores helmet!’ Murray quips, triggering a hearty chuckle among all gathered.
‘Or like a cathedral from here,’ Jan adds, before segueing into considering what Mark Twain, one of the classic writers whose writings features heavily throughout the show, would think of their endeavours. ‘I think he would be very excited. Twain was on the road most of his life. We went to the Twain museum in Buffalo and we saw his schedule and it was much crazier than ours. I think he would’ve come here and read his books, so I think we’re taking over from him, doing his job, because he’s not around anymore.’
With their source material sorted, one must wonder how they incorporate their own creative stylings into the mix, be it a sombre tone as befits some classical pieces, or lightening the tone in keeping with Murray’s renowned humour, first honed during his Saturday Night Live era.
‘You can’t help but be funny sometimes,’ Murray admits with a shrug. ‘Live performances,
it’s rare, and especially this kind of material, where you’re touching all these kinds of people. You’re playing with lots of different emotions and ideas, it’s a far-ranging show and we do a lot of things.’
Murray is quick to praise the talents of the other members of the quartet. ‘Their playing is so good, that it’s kind of dazzling, we sort of dazzle everyone first and then we send our people to go through the audience, to go through their pockets and purses. It’s been a lot of fun to play every single night, sometimes we think we’re getting too funny, or not funny enough, but it has its own weight, the material doesn’t really drag you down.’
Vogler reflects on the reaction they have experienced throughout the running of New Worlds.
‘It’s very interesting. As a cellist, I’ve had some good success before, and I thought that’s
what an audience sounds like when they really, really enjoy it. But this is different, people
really go crazy in the end.’
So then, would that rapturous applause they invariably receive at the conclusion of the show, be their favourite part of said show?
Surprisingly, that is not Murray’s highlight. ‘My favourite part is actually when we have
reached the point that we really know that we’ve got them. That we are properly
communicating and we’re all in this together. That they are with us all the way, once we’ve
won the crowd over and they really see what we’re doing and they respect what we’re doing, then we really get to revel in what we’re doing and luxuriate in the sounds and the words.’
Lastly, Jan considers the star attribute Murray brings to the show – his voice, and how it
differs from more traditional performers commonly found in the operatic and classical music scene. ‘Well, I noticed when I went to see The Jungle Book he has incredibly good rhythm and timing,’ he says. ‘And I’m sure timing is very important in acting, but in music, it is essential. Then also, he has a big voice, I guess he hasn’t sung that much, which is good, because it means he has a lot of voice left. You see sometimes singers that have sung for a long time, have used up their voice and don’t have much left.’
Evidently, the quartet has much left to share and, based upon both Sydney shows receiving rave reviews, one can expect that the New Worlds will soon grace our shores again in the near future.