In today's world, connections made on flights can sometimes lead to more. In the case of cellist Jan Vogler, a chance encounter with actor Bill Murray (yes, that Bill Murray) led to not only a friendship but their lyrical "New Worlds" project, which they'll present Saturday night at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.
"We were going through security at the Berlin airport, which is a very small, very intimate airport. So you go through security at the gate, and it's really just the people who are actually going to end up on that plane," said Vogler.
The East Berlin native and Murray were both in line, and the comedian jokingly asked how the instrumentalist would fit his cello case, "that big box," in the overhead compartment. Vogler explained that he had to purchase a seat for his four-stringed companion.
"It ended up that we were neighbors in the plane again, so we struck up a conversation," he said. Instead of catching up on sleep or watching movies, he ended up chatting with Murray.
"There was a lot to talk about: He was very interested in music and I was very interested in lots of the subjects he had to talk about," he recalled. "We had a really good time." No business was discussed and it even took a while for Vogler to recognize him.
"In the beginning, I didn't quite know where to (place) him, which I'm ashamed of," he admitted. "I knew he was famous person, an actor, I guess. But, you know, you're in your own world at the airport." By the time Murray introduced himself, Vogler had figured out who he was.
"Then we stayed in touch and became friends, and the product really came only after more than two years hanging out together here and there," he said. The result is “New Worlds”: a collection of classical pieces and show tunes by the likes of Bach, Gershwin and Mancini and text by Whitman, Hemingway and others.
The "& Friends" portion of the billing is violinist Mira Wang (to whom Vogler is married) and pianist Vanessa Perez. The “New Worlds” album was released by Decca Gold on Sept. 29 and the quartet has a string of dates on the West Coast and in Denver.
"Everything about this project came through people," Vogler answered, when asked about the origins of its instrumentation. "Bill and I were friends. And then Bill came to our home, and as I was grilling some steaks he was talking with Mira.
"They became friends, too, and I could tell they had great communications which were different from the communications (he and I) had, about different subjects." Wang was born and raised in mainland China and added to the unintentionally international group that also includes Perez, who is Cuban-Venezuelan-Argentine.
"I had played tangos with her many years ago on this tango record and knew she is a very sweet person who has a very warm personality and is easy to work with," he said. "So the team was really chosen according to chemistry."
While Murray is a natural choice to recite the work of Mark Twain, the American music, literature and poetry that serves as the source material for “New Worlds” is surprisingly familiar to the 53-year old Vogler, whose childhood was spent in a Communist state: "We look at the Cold War as not only tense but a boring and grey time in East Berlin. In East Germany, that's true. But not in East Berlin," Vogler said.
"There's always this undercurrent you can find same was in Moscow or St. Petersburg. There was a creative spirit under the Stalin times which brought great music to light," he added.
Vogler also grew up in a cultured family. His first music teacher was his father, and his parents had a library filled with "all of the classics Hemingway and Faulkner and Whitman, Arthur and Henry Miller." He also viewed avant-garde films, was exposed to the music of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein and saw a production of Gershwin's "Porgy & Bess" opera in East Berlin when he was 14.
"If you were born into a Communist family, you would get the Communist education," he noted. "And if you were born into an international family like mine, you would get all the Western culture."
The showcase for “New Worlds” is a three-song “West Side Story Suite,” recorded in time for Bernstein's centenary. "I Feel Pretty" is one of Murray's singing performances and reflects a similar sense of joy that he conveyed when crooning "The Bare Necessities" in the 2016 live remake of “The Jungle Book,” which Vogler enjoyed.
"I went with my kids, and we all loved it," he said. "I saw it before my first creative meeting with Bill and thought, 'Bill can sing so well. Oh, fantastic!' I knew he sang, but I didn't know he was so free with the singing.
"He came over to our … house and knew all the songs everything. So I thought, 'Okay, if he can sing Bernstein, “West Side Story,” then that is the big message. And we have a cornerstone in the program.'"
"Somewhere" and "America" sound especially poignant in today's social and political climate. "Bill was killing it in September and October at Carnegie Hall, particularly when he sang 'Puerto Rico is in America,'" Vogler said.
"Maybe the piece had a different meaning when it was premiered. Now we are in different world."
The “New Worlds” experience has been different from recording or performing, say, a cello concerto, which Vogler has done with the New York Philharmonic. Instead of capturing an already perfected interpretation in the recording studio, Vogler said they did some of the kind of experimenting one might do in a pop music session.
"The content is so intense and so beautiful that I think after each show we take something home. The audience reflects back to us in a special way, and another line of words or a detail which happened differently that night gets stuck in your head.”