Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Happy Birthday, Robert J!

I always listened to the radio growing up. We had to. Although we had (and still have- right Katy)? LPs, there was no YouTube, MP3's or Spotify. My mother and I listened to the weekly broadcasts of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on WDRC-AM, Hartford. That same station would carry Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 later that night. The Red Sox were on WTIC-AM, and the National Lampoon Radio Hour was on WHCN-FM. When I started college, Howard Stern was the morning drive DJ on WCCC-FM. By the time it mattered to me, a long-time classical station in Hartford, WTIC-FM, had sold out to bubble-gum pop and the only outlet for classical music was NPR.

Yesterday marked what would have been the 80th birthday of a voice from my past. Robert J. Lurtsema hosted a remarkable morning radio show called Morning Pro Musica, syndicated on NPR in the Northeast from 1971 until 2000. His own quirky package of news, classical programming and live guests greeted New Englanders thirsty for eclectic repertoire and a slow pace to begin their day. From 7 a.m to noon. Every. Day.

“Robert J.’s” voice was so reliably serene, his pronunciation of foreign names was flawless, and the range of his programming was jaw-dropping- cycles of Boyce Symphonies, the complete works-- good and bad-- of every major and minor composer that ever lived, and every Sunday morning a Bach Cantata. The Hartt School’s excellent music library had scores to a surprising number of these works and I seized many days and devoured whatever I could. Guest artists included Scottish singer Jean Redpath, Julia Child, John Cage and Aaron Copland.

Much to his (and his devotees') chagrin, NPR decided to introduce a talk element to their programming “(Morning Sedition with Bob Bedwards),” and when grad school rolled around I could only hear him from 9-11. Still, I would religiously make notes in the 24-PAGE program guide for WFCR in Amherst, MA of pieces to record (remember cassettes)?? and I still refer to some of these tapes today. It was thanks to him that I became aware of the music of David Van Vactor.

When I was first diagnosed with diabetes in September, 1979, I also had mono and things were not looking good; I spent a week in New Britain (CT) General Hospital, figuring out what I needed to do to combat this new peril. I missed my first week of college and the day after I was discharged, my brother got married. Little did I know Mr. Lurtsema had decided to program the complete Bach Cello Suites that week as performed by Maurice Gendron. After I slept through the first Suite, I decided to set my alarm to coincide with the first downbeat of any successive Suites. Gendron’s renditions of the Suites were so refulgent and pure, echoing down the hospital floor, I had no choice but to pursue this music until I owned it, while vowing to never let diabetes own me. Mr. Lurtsema, your timing was impeccable.

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