Bill Murray somehow played a concert at Koerner Hall

Along with cellist Jan Vogler and friends, the actor led a variety show that mixed great American literature, classical music, drinking and prancing

BILL MURRAY with JAN VOGLER AND FRIENDS at Koerner Hall, Friday, October 13. Rating: NNN

Bill Murray was the headliner of the Season Gala concert to begin the 2017/18 season at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Yes, that Bill Murray.

At this point in his career, Murray has become one of those rare stars who can do pretty much whatever he wants and make it work through sheer force of charm. He can sing Take Me Out To The Ballgame as Daffy Duck in the seventh inning of a Cubs game, star in a student remake of Reservoir Dogs just because he happened upon their shoot, or, as he proved last night, play the beautiful, stately Koerner Hall for a well-heeled crowd of donors and society types.

What “play” might mean for Bill Murray at a venue that typically hosts the masters of jazz and classical seemed a bit of a mystery going in, even if you were aware of the concept of New Worlds, the project he put together with cellist Jan Vogler. It’s a program of Great American Literature from Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain meets performances of George Gershwin and Van Morrison. So, as an audience member, you could be going to see a showcase of “great American values,” as it says in the program, or you could be going to see Bill Murray be Bill Murray.

“I’m excited!” yelled one young woman after the applause died down and the actor took his place behind a music stand, vocalizing the curious anticipation in the air. “That’s one,” Murray deadpanned back.

At first, it seemed that actually might be the tenor of the night, with Murray choosing to play to the room and stick to serious, high art that teemed with the late-career melancholy he’s developed in indie films like Lost In Translation and Broken Flowers. His reading of Walt Whitman’s Song Of The Open Road and its sentiment “I swear to you, there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell,” was filled with gravitas, while Vogler’s instantly recognizable Bach Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 felt steady and precise.

Bill Murray

Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall

The energy started to pick up with a performance of Maurice Ravel’s Blues by violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez, as Murray took a seat behind the piano and watched as a classical sounding composition suddenly became wild and frenetic. Perez struck the keys in passionate and spontaneous blasts, like it was it was surprising even her, while Wang wailed on the violin with violent stabs of her bow.

It seemed to wake everyone in the room, and when Murray later read from A Moveable Feast, his French and Bulgarian character readings were funny and surprisingly transporting, removing some of the serious veneer. Murray returned to his perch behind the piano to observe an instrumental version of It Ain’t Necessarily So from Porgy and Bess, but then spontaneously rose midway through to sing in an impressive bluesy wail that seemed to surprise everyone. As he sang the theology-questioning lyrics, he entreated the crowd to join along and sway back and forth “like we’re in church or something.”

That broke the format of alternating literary readings and classical music. Gradually, the concert became more playful as Murray morphed into full-on lovable drunk uncle mode. As Wang sat and bowed her violin during one performance, Murray came over and whispered in her ear. Slowly, she rose and they danced a basic tango. Later, the three musicians engaged in a sort of duelling banjos, where each was playing a different famous composition and trying to edge each other out until Wang and Perez were doing a battling duet on the piano. Murray came over and shut the lid, quieting the music, then picked up a glass of scotch and launched into a hilariously slurred version of Tom Waits’ The Piano Has Been Drinking.

So much for the buttoned-up Bill Murray of the beginning of the concert. By the end, during a final West Side Story medley, he was literally prancing around on stage and singing I Feel Pretty. “It’s alarming how charming I feel,” he sang, and you could feel it. After finishing the song America with an added “Nobody knows Puerto Rico’s in America,” which elicited rapturous, knowing applause, he left the stage and returned not once but three times.

Then, after finishing a first-time version of the traditional Scottish song Loch Lomond, a stagehand came and handed him a bouquet of roses. He started to gently toss them to people in the front rows, then ran into the crowd to hand-deliver them, then finally whipped them like a big league pitcher throwing a fastball into the balcony. When he jumped up on the piano stool to launch one into the top deck, everyone was behind him. Somehow, this classical music concert had become a sporting event.

That’s Bill Murray for you. 

Bill Murray

Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall

Bill Murray

Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall | @trapunski

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