Bill Murray Explores 'New Worlds' -- Classic Literature & Classical Music -- At Napa Valley Event

Paul E. Richardson
Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends - New Worlds

While history tells us that Mark Twain never had the pleasure of knowing Bill Murray, perhaps the writer had a premonition that one day the Lost in Translation star might call upon his words.

Watching Murray deliver a passage from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on Thursday night, it was as though the novel had been tailored to the beloved actor's talents, replete with Southern drawls and a revelation that sometimes the wrong thing pays the same as the right one. The performance was part of New Worlds, an evening featuring Murray, cellist Jan Vogler, violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez. An unlikely quartet, the foursome pulled from all manner of classic texts and compositions.

At the center of the proceedings was Murray, traipsing the stage as he delivered written passages from the likes of Walt Whitman, humorist James Thurber and Truman Capote. If only every college English major could have Murray at the lectern, reciting these works with a perfect balance of humor and reverence, it is likely students might actually relish the chance to do some extra homework.

The performance served as the marquee offering of the 2017 Festival Napa Valley. Set mere blocks away from chef Thomas Keller’s world-renowned French Laundry restaurant in the heart of Northern California’s wine country, the Lincoln Theater brought an upscale but respectful crowd to witness the premiere of New Worlds, which is slated to embark on an as-yet-unannounced North American tour and yield an album release in September.

Some of those in attendance seemed like just the sort of folks Murray has deconstructed in his work with director Wes Anderson, but banter was not on the menu. Instead, Murray ensured things wouldn't be too stuffy when he launched into an over-the-top rendition of "I Feel Pretty" and "America" from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. With a hearty helping of deadpan expressions and ebullient hand gestures, the moment was pure joy, both for the crowd and the performers onstage.

It would be a vast oversight not to highlight the talent that joined Murray. Perez was a madwoman on the piano, viscerally reacting with each key she plucked as the chamber trio worked through pieces like Astor Piazzola's "La Muerte del angel" and Henry Mancini's "Moon River." Vogler -- regarded as one of the world’s premier cello soloists -- followed a passage read by Murray in which Ernest Hemingway confesses to being a terrible cello player with an inspired performance of Bach’s "Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G Major."

Wang was the surprise star of the show, effervescent behind her violin. Even Murray seemed to contract her infectious energy, stopping her in the midst of one number so he could take her hand and dance the tango while Perez and Vogler played on.

For all the notable names that Murray drew on to create New Worlds, the evening may well have been quite dull in less capable hands. While undoubtedly many can appreciate the talent of composer George Gershwin, there is something so fresh and dazzling about seeing Murray breathe life into the Porgy & Bess number "It Ain't Necessarily So." Many regard Thurber as one of the most important figures in the legacy of American humor, but seeing Murray deliver the lines of a drunken Ulysses S. Grant from "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox," one has to consider whether the time has come to bestow the title anew.

Following an encore, Murray left the stage and returned carrying a hefty bouquet of roses. Throwing the flowers out into the crowd (including a few impressive lobs to the balcony that might inspire his beloved Chicago Cubs to send a pitching scout out to his October performance at Carnegie Hall), several lucky members of the audience went home with a memento to remind them of a truly enchanting evening.

Yet for those of us without flowers, there is no doubt we too will always recall the night we spent with Murray.