Musical Offering chamber group beginning 39th season

By David Hawley | 10/23/2009

The Musical Offering is not only one of the great works of Western music. It’s also the name of one of the oldest chamber groups in the Twin Cities, now poised to begin its 39th season on Sunday.

I’ll also reach for another connection between Bach’s masterpiece and the group that performs in the charming and intimate Sundin Music Hall at Hamline University. The generally accepted story about Bach’s “Musical Offering” is that he wrote the collection of canons, fugues and other pieces following a visit to the Potsdam palace of Frederick II (“The Great”) in 1747.

In his terrific book, “Evening in the Palace of Reason,” James R. Gaines describes that fateful meeting as a kind of quintessential chamber concert. The scene involves “Old Bach,” surrounded by an array of professional musicians, enthusiastic amateurs (including the Emperor) and spectators, along with Bach’s son, C.P.E. Bach, who is a court musician. Frederick plinks out a long and excruciatingly difficult musical figure on one of the newfangled pianos that he’s just acquired and challenges Bach to improvise.

To the delight of those present, Bach — according to lore — improvises the three-part fugue on “The Royal Theme” that has become part of the collection we hear today. It’s a perfect chamber moment — up close, intimate, informative, concentrated, enjoyed by a small audience of enthusiasts.

That’s the goal of The Musical Offering, which has 11 members this year, along with some guest performers, and is planning a season of four concerts.

“Our goal is to make chamber music as accessible as possible,” said Norbert Nielubowski, a Minnesota Orchestra bassoonist who is sharing the ensemble’s artistic directorship with pianist Rees Allison, the only remaining founder of The Musical Offering who is still performing with the group.

If you attend one of the concerts, expect to listen to presentations in the lobby by people familiar with the program, including some of the performers. Sundin Hall, according to Nielubowski, is “great for chamber music – not a bad seat in the hall for sightlines and acoustics.”

Other inducements: Parking is free at Hamline on Sunday afternoons (the concerts are at 3 p.m.). And you can buy a season ticket to all four performances for less – much less – than the top price to one concert by the Minnesota Orchestra.

One other inducement: Audiences won’t be getting an entire program of string quartets — though Nielubowski acknowledges that there was a conscious decision to “go back to the basics” this year by including one string quartet in all but one of this season’s concerts (the concert on Dec. 6 includes Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 1). All of the programs, however, include music with combinations involving wind instruments and piano.

“One of the great things about a group like this is the variety of sounds,” said Nielubowski, who is part of an offbeat selection in Sunday’s concert: Beethoven’s Trio Wo0 37 for flute, bassoon and piano. The program also includes Tcherepnin’s Trio for flute, violin and cello and Mendelssohn’s Op. 12 String Quartet.

(Don’t be surprised to hear somebody say, “Happy Birthday, Felix.” It’s been said a lot this year, for it’s his 200th.)

And, finally, a little history: The Musical Offering began in 1971 as a quintet for piano (Rees Allison), flute (Adel Lorraine), oboe (Richard Killmer), violin (Fred Sewell) and cello (Felice Magendanz). In the beginning, it was dominated by St. Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians; now its members are dominated by members of the Minnesota Orchestra.

It’s a swell season. And the price is right: Ranging from $8 per concert for students to $17 for full-fledged adults. Four concerts can be experienced for the price of three. Go here for details.

Daniel Meyers