In 2013, comedian Bill Murray was going through airport security when he saw a man carrying a very large box. “Are you going to be able to fit that thing in the overhead compartment?” he asked. The man, who happened to be world-renowned German cellist Jan Vogler, explained that his Stradivarius cello actually gets its own first-class seat. The conversation turned into a friendship that’s blossomed into an unlikely collaboration: a variety show, “New Worlds,” in which Murray sings show tunes and reads poems and excerpts from novels while accompanied by a classical chamber music trio consisting of Vogler, violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez. Vogler discussed the unlikely union ahead of the group’s Friday performance at Strathmore.
How did you choose the pieces for the performance?
Our aim was to really make something completely new, but with elements taken from the greatest American music and literature of the last 250 years. We start with [Walt] Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” and the Bach cello suite, because these pieces are contemplating life as a whole and reflecting on who we are on this planet. Then we go into James Fenimore Cooper, who describes untouched landscapes in New York. Schubert, in Europe, read Cooper and was a big nature admirer as well, so we put them together. We are touching on a lot of subjects, touching on all the important things about humanity and about our existence — but in an entertaining way.
Bill Murray seems like a surprising guy. Has he ever done anything unexpected onstage?
Bill is somebody who never does things twice the same. Although the show is scripted, and we don’t change the pieces we are playing or singing or reading, there is a lot of room to always change your interpretation. Plus, the show itself has an element of surprise. When we start, people are thinking, “What the hell is that?”
It is unusual to have a famous comedian deadpanning poetry alongside a classical chamber trio.
We want to surprise people. We have gotten the comment often that this show is entirely new and people really haven’t quite seen anything like it.
As I understand it, a particularly dramatic moment happens when Bill reads a selection from “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” where Huck Finn grapples with his conscience.
That’s the most important scene from “Huckleberry Finn,” and maybe the most important scene from American literature in the 19th century. The message is so clear — someone who has an innocent heart, who is doing the right thing, risking his own life helping his friend escape slavery.
What do you hope people take from the performance?
I think if you see these pieces and hear these pieces, you really hear a lot of our values — I say “our” because I’m American. I have an American passport now. Americans have always been famous for being very empathetic and helping each other out. When you look at these texts, it’s surprising how relevant they are still today, and maybe they can help us reflect on America and imagine a promising future together.
Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md.; Fri., 8 p.m., $58-$88.