On a sunny, mild winter afternoon last week, under the arch, an accomplished cello player is attracting a slew of listeners. It is a typical Washington Square Park musical moment. He’s playing Bach G-Major Prelude.
Someone sets up a chair near him and a violinist appears and together they play Handel’s Halvorsen. The aggregation of listeners grows to an arc. Then, a pianist on a keyboard completes the trio for Piazzolla’s Muerte del Angel.
The violin and keyboard move to a popular music genre riffing on Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So. A songster appears and begins to sing the lyrics.
The crowd grows.
Meanwhile, George Schneider, visiting from Washington State, is walking through Washington Square Park, and hears some music and sees a few dozen people listening. Naturally, he wanders over.
“As I get closer, I note that the guy singing really isn’t very good —out of tune, raspy voice,” he observes. “I’m thinking, ‘with Covid persisting for so long, New Yorkers are starved for live music and apparently will listen to anything!’ ” Then he takes a closer look. Schneider is encountering a mini flash-mob.
And, he realizes that beanie-clad, scratchy voiced singer is Ghostbuster and Caddyshack-famed Bill Murray. Schneider believes he is experiencing what is a tradition for Bill Murray, a surprising pop-up. But it is much more than that.
This cluster of New Yorkers are sampling music from the concert documentary film with these musicians—renowned cellist Jan Vogler, violinist Mira Wang, and pianist Vanessa Perez, and Bill Murray, performing at the Acropolis in Athens. The filming of New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization took place at the final concert of the quartet’s 2018 European tour.
These four toured nationally and internationally during 2017-2018, playing 63 gigs in 20-some countries with a program of classical and popular music, spoken word, song, and poetry. In 2017, Bill Murray and Jan Vogler released the album Friends, New Worlds, the number one classical album that year.
How did this come about?
A few years back, these unlikely collaborators met at the Berlin airport when Murray, intrigued by Vogler’s huge cello case being carried onto the airplane, discovered the cello had its own first-class window seat. Cellist Jan Vogler sat across the aisle from Murray, and during the long Berlin-New York flight, the two became friends.
Two years later they took a Poet’s House-sponsored poetry walk and Bill Murray recited Walt Whitman’s A Song For the Open Road (among other readings), which inspired Vogler. Later when Murray visited Vogler, they discovered they had similar tastes in music and literature—the seeds of collaboration were planted. The two went on to create a program of classical and popular music and spoken word. And, after the 2016 election, they wanted a program that in part celebrated American arts and literature.
Nearing the end of the tour documentary director and NYU alumnus Andrew Muscato got involved. Local Greek film crews filmed the last concert of the tour at the Acropolis and it took a year before the creatives involved knew how they wanted to move forward. Then there was the pandemic. The film titled New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization premiered at Cannes this past summer.
Opening nationwide on Groundhog Day Feb. 2, media rounds promoting the film were becoming a bit routine when Murray and Vogler, seeking something different, picked Washington Square Park. Without a permit, on a day of mild weather before the arctic blast, a mini flash mob grouped at the arch for the film sampling live preview.
Under the arch, each additional musician added to the classical repertoire. And, in addition to Ain’t Necessarily So from Porgy and Bess, Murray recited Ferlinghetti’s poem Dog, and also spoke/sang a West Side Story medley of I Free Pretty and I Wanna Be in America before park police put the nix on the unauthorized performance.
In one of his interviews, Murray admits he was intimidated when walking out into the Acropolis, recognizing that people have been performing there for thousands of years. His respectful yet whimsical homage begins the group’s last concert as Murray throws long-stemmed roses into the audience.
The classical performances at the Acropolis include pieces from Franz Shubert, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Joseph Ravel. Popular songs and readings range from pieces by Steven Foster and James Fennimore Cooper and James Thurber to Ernest Hemmingway, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Jimmy Durante. And of course, Bernstein’s West Side Story medley, which also includes Somewhere. After two minutes of applause, the encore runs for nearly 20 minutes.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.