Arts Listings

The Musical Offering: ‘All the Elements of Civilization’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 06:44:00 PM
The Musical Offering remains a gathering place for those interested in good food and fine music.
The Musical Offering remains a gathering place for those interested in good food and fine music.

When I was a student here, in the early ’50s,” said concert pianist Daniell Revenaugh, over a cup of soup in the Musical Offering Cafe, “there were four or five record stores on Telegraph Avenue and around the university that featured classical music—and a couple of them were real meeting places, like the coffee houses of old London. This is the only place like that left.” 

However numerous or well-stocked record stores of yore, they were a different animal than the symbiotic creation under one roof at 2430 Bancroft Way, across from Zellerbach Auditorium: The Musical Offering & Cafe (also called the Café-Bistro), as well as the University Press Bookstore.  

“James Cahill, retired professor of art history, a partner in the store—and father of Sarah Cahill, the New Music pianist—once said this building had all the elements of civilization under one roof,” recalled William McClung, founder of the bookstore. “Books, coffee, wine, music—and community.” 

“It’s a place, not just a bookstore—or just a CD store or cafe,” McClung continued. The bookstore has been called McClung’s brainchild. “One of my perspectives is scholarly publishing—and of specialty presses struggling to survive.”  

He started at Princeton University Press in 1963. “The presses were right under the office. You could hear them roar, smell the ink,” he said. 

He dreamed up University Press Bookstore in 1974 while a sponsoring editor at the University of California Press. (The bookstore isn’t related to UC Press, “except for carrying their titles along with those of 139 other scholarly and academic presses of the 20,000 books in the store.”)  

At first located on Durant Avenue, the bookstore moved to Bancroft in 1981, a second partnership buying the Lucas Books building that has housed booksellers since the 1920s. Partitions were added; the Musical Offering and the café joined the bookstore. The Musical Offering had been brought into the partnership in 1978, located on the mall between Durant and Bancroft, formerly a sheet music store.  

Jean Spencer of the Musical Offering and her late husband Joseph—once a piano tuner to both Vladimir Horowitz and the Rolling Stones, whose pioneering Early Music radio program, “Chapel, Court & Countryside,” debuted on KPFK in Los Angeles in the 1970s, eventually airing on KPFA and finally on the tiny KMZT until 2001, the year of his death—came on board in 1987. “Joseph managed the record store,” she said. “I’ve always managed the café.”  

In Los Angeles, they hosted the nascent Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra at the first West Coast Early Music Festival. “It was way before the critics wrote about Baroque music,” Spencer said. “They thought we were like the Renaissance Faire! No critical press—and a thousand people showed up.”  

The Philharmonia Baroque players still show up. There’s a signed poster of Philharmonia artistic director Nicholas McGegan on the wall. “Joseph was close to the American Bach Soloists, too,” Spencer reminisced. “And we were deeply involved in the San Francisco Early Music Society. Joseph started the Wildboar recording label [after his middle name, Wilbur].” 

“We do a lot of public events,” Spencer continued, “Receptions, that sort of thing. We put on one for Daniell Revenaugh and Larry Smith when they brought out their CD of Busoni’s complete two-piano music, displaying some of Daniell’s big collection of Busoni memorabilia. There have been dinners for Berkeley Symphony, Harmonia Mundi ... Kent Nagano would eat dinner here before concerts. Robert Coles of Cal Performances comes in often. And Cecilia Bertolli when she’s in town. We’re closely related to UC events, and the Café-Bistro offers special dinner menus on the nights of Zellerbach shows. I think we’re an institution—and for many, many years, an oasis.” 

The Café-Bistro features an ever-changing menu for omnivores and vegetarians alike. Recent dinner and late afternoon/evening tapas menus reveal such delectables as crispy-skin duck over confit, lamb shoulder braised with preserved lemon, served with sumac salad and flatbread, as well as an entrée of roasted baby eggplant stuffed with ratatouille. The chef, Erick B. (for Balbueno), “walked in the door one day,” Spencer recalls. “Born in Spain, raised in Mexico, trained in New York—and an insatiable learner—I knew after talking with him for five minutes that he was a terrific chef. And his presentations are beautiful.” 

The CD shop features 10,000 discs, according to Nadja Matisoff, co-manager (with Don Kaplan, who edits the “occasional newsletter,” Take Note, the current issue featuring his interview with viola da gamba maestro Jordi Savall and his wife soprano Montserrat Figueras, both store visitors during the annual Berkeley Early Music Festival), a “broad, yet shallow collection—many titles, but not too many copies of any one.” Matisoff commented, “It’s amazing how much influence on what we carry each person working here has.” 

“One of my visions, goals, is to have the Musical Offering be a joyous place, one that feeds the spirit as well as the body,” said Spencer. “That’s the bottom line.” 

Above the bookstore door is its slogan: “Ten Thousand Minds On Fire.” McClung says it’s from Emerson, “but I changed it from ‘A Mind’ to ‘Ten Thousand’” Besides the stock of books from scholarly and academic presses, there’s now a specialty shop upstairs in back, Handsome Books (Martin Holden, proprietor), with scarce and unusual books, often with decorated covers and spines, from over the past century or so.  

McClung also points to the big, handsome table in the back, where “we have our University Press Bookstore Conversations—creating conversations between authors and what we call interlocutors.” (Next Tuesday at 7 p.m., Christina Creveling of UPB will be in conversation with Priscilla Royal, author of Forsaken Soul, from the Medieval Mystery Series.) And to the gallery in the Café-Bistro, where Marty Knapp’s stunning photos of the Point Reyes Peninsula are on display. 

“If we sold just two more CDs a day, it would make a big difference,” said Jean Spencer.  

“We’re in a community,” William McClung said. “We have something to offer. But we need people to buy.”