By Edward Shanahan
During short hops on weekends, I'm still tempted to punch the
WGBH button on the car radio to pick up "Morning Pro Musica,''
a classical music program from Boston.
I would like to think I could find Robert J. Lurtsema there,
but I know I can't. He died almost precisely a year ago.
I recall that morning and my reaction. I put a recording of
Gabriel Faure's Requiem, Op. 48 on the turntable as I sat down
to read his obituary. I suspect he would have approved of my selection.
For me, the death of Robert J., as he was known to most of his
listeners, was equivalent to a death in the family, as I had logged
as much or more time with him as I have with some family members.
He and I had, from time to time, minor correspondence and I met
him once at a press gathering at UMass, but we were not equals.
He was my teacher, my mentor in matters musical and cultural;
I was his student and proud to be one.
I attended his classes religiously, at home in Northampton while
WFCR carried his program or when vacationing in Maine on public
radio there, in the Boston area while visiting family, in Connecticut
where I lived briefly and much later on the public radio station
News of his death produced a sense of profound loss, not only
of him but of my innocence. My appreciation of classical music
had grown and deepened because of his influence. He had shaped
my tastes, he had taken me on a long and endlessly interesting
journey and now he was gone.
It was not just that Robert J. chose an eclectic range of classical
music for his program. He selected, edited and read the news several
times each morning, which provided consistency and balance. There
always seemed to be some overarching intelligence behind the choice
of music, the themes they illustrated, the relationship of composers
one to another, the competing artistry of the performers presented,
the sweep of music and commentary.
Of course, "Morning Pro Musica" was so intelligent precisely
because Robert J. worked at it. He devoted countless off-air hours
researching and constructing his programs so the five hours he
broadcast each day were orderly and relaxed at the same time.
The commentary was not off the cuff, unlike most radio chatter.
Prepared months in advance, the programs had a solid feeling,
the way well-crafted prose reads or a keenly-rehearsed play projects.
I was not a complete dunce about classical music, but I had
neglected my earlier exposure to it in favor of the more popular
genre, especially the music of the 1960s, Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
What Robert J. did for me was reinvigorate my interest in serious
music, nurture it, feed and challenge it and propel me to begin
to acquire my own classical music collection to which I could
turn when he was not on the air.
In those days the local Caldor's had a surprisingly strong classical
record section with frequent sales, which I am certain is where
I acquired the Faure Requiem.
Later when, Iva Dee Hiatt, the legendary choral director at
Smith College died, I became the custodian of scores and scores
of albums of choral works, which prior to my exposure to Robert
J. and the every Sunday morning Bach cantata, I would have shunned.
I don't remember the year but I was on my hands and knees washing
the kitchen floor one weekday morning when Robert J. played what
seemed like six or eight different recordings of Pachelbel's Canon
in D, a little-known piece at the time. That was a favorite form
of Lurtsema pedagogy, to contrast several artistic interpretations
of works. The emotion and beauty of the Pachelbel haunted me as
it has millions of others. Robert J. alone pushed the piece to
the top of the classical music charts, if there is such a thing.
I recall in the summer of 1981 while vacationing at Hancock Point,
Maine, on a deck overlooking Frenchman Bay, listening to several
hours of Canto General, highly charged music by the contemporary
Greek composer Mikos Theodorakis in accompaniment to a libretto
by leftist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The intensity of the music
and the political narrative was so powerful, I later wrote to
Robert J. to find out where I could get hold of the album. Peters
International in New York, he wrote back, and thus I acquired
Later in the evening of the day I read the Lurtsema obituary,
I cracked open the Canto General two-record album, cranked up
the volume, and said a personal good-bye to Robert J.
He was singular, make no mistake.
Skilled as an interviewer, Lurtsema offered a steady diet of
"live" performances and discussions with composers and artists,
ranging from Ravi Shankar and Jean Redpath to Marcel Marceau and
Jean Pierre Rampal. Over the span of nearly 30 years, his circle
of musician friends and admirers grew wider and wider, and thus
we were exposed to a who's who in the classical pantheon. For
many years, he took us to Tanglewood by radio for an the entire
opening weekend, describing the lush surroundings; we met the
conductors, performers and composers gathered for the summer-long
Boston Symphony Orchestra festival.
I recall one Saturday some years back Robert J. introducing us
to a new gadget that was about to come on the market - a compact
disc player, which he explained and experimented with for the
entire five hours, even though at the time very few pieces of
music had been recorded in this new format.
Robert J. had his detractors - he seemed to want us to feel
sorry for him for working so hard in our behalf; he loved the
sound of his voice and played it like the instrument it was; he
favored recordings such as Peter and the Wolf on which he was
the narrator; and over time some felt he became more important
than the music. And what about those chirping birds at the beginning
of each day's program?
I recognized some of his failings, but he had done so much to
enrich the quality of my life that I could never imagine saying
a cross word about him.
We were more or less present at the creation of "Morning Pro
Musica." He launched the program - first on weekends - in 1971,
just a month before our family moved to Northampton.
I was immediately hooked by Robert J. And when he expanded the
program to seven days or 35 hours a week, life was too good. When
WFCR dropped him in the late 1980s I was angry; when we moved
to North Carolina in 1986 I felt deprived. Back in this area,
I was disappointed in 1993 when Robert J. returned to the original
weekend format. But at least I could still get a small Robert
Not so now. I'm on my own.
Yet, I am not without resources - there are hundreds and hundreds
of records and discs in our home to which I can turn. I'll continue
to offer up musical tributes to Robert J. Lurtsema from my own
collection in order to say ''thank you, Bobby,'' as I used to
call him behind his back. He made a profound impact and difference
in one person's life. How many of us have done the same?