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Meet the Musicians

Meet a Musician: Norbert Nielubowski

Norbert Nielubowski, standing and holding a bassoon in Orchestra Hall's Roberta Mann Grand Foyer.
Bassoonist and contrabassoonist Norbert Nielubowski | Photo by Joel Larson

Joined Minnesota Orchestra in: 1987
Position: Bassoon and Contrabassoon
Retiring: After October 13 and 14 concerts
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois 

As you prepare for your retirement in mid-October, what memories come to mind when you think back on being appointed to the Minnesota Orchestra by Edo de Waart in 1987?

I grew up listening to Edo’s recordings of Mozart and Strauss with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, and for me those were ideals in terms of wind playing, so to get a job in the Minnesota Orchestra playing for him was a dream come true. My very first concert was interesting: we flew to Rapid City, South Dakota, played Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and came back that same night. I wondered if that was what being in a major orchestra was like, since my previous job playing opera in Chicago didn’t involve touring. As it turns out, we’ve never done anything quite like that since then! Another concert I still remember from that very first year was a concert version of Das Rheingold—we had a great cast, a great conductor and a great orchestra; it was an incredible experience.

How did you get into music and the orchestra world as a profession?

I went to a public high school in Chicago, Lane Tech, which had an incredible music program—in fact, when I joined the Minnesota Orchestra there were five other members who were all alumni. At first I wanted to play the oboe, but my uncle was a woodwind doubler in Chicago and had a bassoon that he didn’t use much—he let me use it while he looked for an oboe—but he never found one! I had a great high school band director and started studying with musicians from the Chicago Symphony, and just out of high school I was playing as an extra musician on The Rite of Spring with the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia. The next fall the Lyric Opera of Chicago needed a contrabassoon, and my career started from there. I got the full time contrabassoon position at Lyric Opera in 1977. While I enjoyed opera (hearing a young Luciano Pavarotti singing Tosca was a particularly vivid memory) I wanted to play symphonic repertoire and was glad when the Minnesota Orchestra’s second bassoon position opened here in 1987.

How did you come to shift to the contrabassoon position?

I’d started my career on contrabassoon, so I told Edo if the Orchestra’s contrabassoon job ever opened up, I’d be interested. In my second year here, the Orchestra was recording Strauss’ Suite for Winds and our contrabassoon player got sick, so I played the part. After the first rehearsal Edo said he understood why I wanted the position, so it worked perfectly that he appointed me to the contra position when it opened in 1993.

But we still see you onstage at times with a regular bassoon, right?

Yes, a lot of times composers will write a doubling part, which means I’ll play both bassoon and contrabassoon in the same piece. I’ve had the opportunity to play in every chair in the section during the time I’ve been here, from principal to contrabassoon.

What’s the most difficult thing about deciding to retire from the Orchestra?

I’m really going to miss my section. John Miller—who I had studied with before joining the Orchestra—led the section for many years, and now Fei Xie is a great colleague and leader. Chris Marshall joined the Orchestra in 1998, and I still remember thinking at his audition that he was the perfect person for the job. Mark Kelley, who retired last season, was probably my best friend in the Orchestra and a great bassoonist. It was always a pleasure to come to work with those people, musically and personally. I’m going to miss some of the great music we play and sitting in the middle of this incredible sound. But I see all these fine young musicians who are trying to get jobs, and I think it’s time for me to open up this chair for one of them. I’ve had it for 36 years, and hopefully somebody will have it for that long.

Shortly after the start of the season is a bit of an unusual time to retire.

Yes, it was originally going to be the end of last season, but then this season’s plans came out and I saw that the first month and a half had some really good contrabassoon repertoire. I talked it over with Fei and asked if he would be okay if I stayed until Shostakovich’s Fifth—it has a great contra part and one that I’ve done a lot. It seemed like a natural ending point. 

What do you plan to do in retirement?

For the last 30 years I’ve been a woodworker, doing everything from furniture to historical house renovation. It’s something I want to spend more time doing. It’s very different from music—if I don’t like something I can try to fix it or throw it in the fireplace. In music there is the pressure to be perfect all the time. For many years I’ve also done repair on bassoons, and I’ll continue to do that. It’s a great way of combining woodworking and mechanical skills with what I’ve learned from playing the instrument. The one thing I won’t miss is constantly having to make reeds—it’s like fine woodworking, but what you make only lasts a few weeks (if we’re lucky!). I’ll also continue teaching—it’s something I’ve done my whole career, and helping young musicians who are excited about music is particularly rewarding.

If you could travel to any time in music history, which performances would you like to hear?

The time period I’m really fascinated about is the turn of the 20th century, because of composers like Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky and Debussy. It was such an incredible time, not only in music, but also in art and architecture. I'd be curious to hear what some of the Mahler symphonies were like when they were first performed, because he was pushing the envelope for so many instruments when they will still in development. Some musical passages were almost impossible then, and now I hear high school students who are playing them.

Which of the Orchestra’s performances stand out as the most meaningful to you?

We did the Schoenberg Gurre-Lieder with Eiji Oue a couple of times—that’s a piece that a lot of people never get to play even once in their career. And then there was Bruckner’s Eighth with Klaus Tennstedt just after the Berlin Wall had come down. I was really moved by that performance, because of how many years he had spent in East Germany and the impact of that moment with him. I remember the first international tours we did in 1998 with Eiji and the great responses we got in Europe and Japan. The concerts that I’ve experienced with Thomas Søndergård have been fantastic; it gives me a lot of hope for the Orchestra’s future.

Join us for Norbert’s final performances as a member of the Minnesota Orchestra on October 13 and 14, 2023, featuring Juraj Valčuha conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Betsy Jolas’ A Little Summer Suite and, with soloist Jörgen van Rijen, the Minnesota Orchestra's first performances of James MacMillan’s Trombone Concerto. Tickets are available now.

A reproduction of an early 20th-century arts and crafts bookcase designed by Norbert Nielubowski, on a wood panel floor in front of a wall.
Norbert’s reproduction of an early 20th-century arts and crafts bookcase.