obituary ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on Wednesday, June
14, 2000. It is reproduced here without permission.)
Robert J. Lurtsema, region's 'Pro Musica' host,
dies at 68
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff, 6/14/2000
Robert J. Lurtsema, whose subterranean tones and pregnant pauses made
him a New England institution as host of WGBH-FM's ''Morning Pro Musica''
for almost three decades, died Monday.
At his family's request, the location was not disclosed. The cause of
death was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He was 68.
Mr. Lurtsema was ''a giant in our industry,'' said WGBH Radio
manager Marita Rivero in a prepared statement. ''He set the industry standard
for classical music programs.''
John Harbison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, noted that Mr. Lurtsema
stood out in a radio environment where individual taste and commitment
to music are increasingly made to defer to homogenized programming.
''Morning Pro Musica,'' Harbison said yesterday, ''was one of
the last bastions of playing complete, challenging pieces from beginning
to end. We'll miss him.''
Universally known as ''Robert J.,'' Mr. Lurtsema made his WGBH
debut in 1971. He had as many as a half-million listeners, and ''Morning
Pro Musica'' was broadcast on stations throughout the region and upstate
''Bob had a personality and a style all his own,'' Michael Steinberg,
the recently retired program annotator for the San Francisco Symphony
and New York Philharmonic, said yesterday. ''It invited parody,
that extreme slowness and those long pauses between words, but it worked
perfectly for him, and he was loved and admired more than any other classical
disc jockey in the country.''
Mr. Lurtsema, who was on the air seven days a week until 1993, when
he cut back to just weekends, opened his show with bird song. It was but
one of the many distinctive touches that won him such a large and devoted
following. Another was his serving as his own newscaster. (He threatened
to quit in 1980 when WGBH tried inserting hourly National Public
Radio news feeds into his broadcast.) The words ''edited and read by
your `Morning Pro Musica' host, Robert J. Lurtsema,'' became in
some households as familiar a New England catchphrase as ''from Eastport
to Block Island.''
Hearing the news read in Mr. Lurtsema's magisterial tones - The New
York Times once described his voice as having ''the texture of warm
fudge'' - was a unique experience. Indeed, a listener once wrote him, ''If
the end of the world were coming, I'd want to hear it from you. I can hear
you saying, `Well, there has been an announcement that the world will end
in 28 minutes. That gives us just enough time to hear Telemann's Sonata
in F for Recorder, Oboe and Continuo.''
Mr. Lurtsema did not lack for detractors, who could find his announcing
style pretentious, labored, mannered, or all three. Many listeners found
his fondness for pauses especially off-putting.
''I'm not afraid of dead air,'' Mr. Lurtsema countered. ''I don't think
there's anything wrong with a quiet spot once in a while. When I pause
I'm visualizing my audience, the person I'm speaking to. I always imagine
I'm speaking to someone in particular.''
That approach helped listeners develop the sense of a personal relationship
with Mr. Lurtsema, as did his many broadcasting quirks. He once devoted
15 minutes to reading Mao Tse-tung's obituary. In 1989, he took a two-month
leave of absence to bone up on his German. On the Saturday closest to his
birthday, Nov. 14, he would play a program of personal favorites, such
as Schubert's ''Trout'' Quintet.
''He had this subtle flamboyance,'' Charles Laquidara of WZLX-FM
said yesterday. Laquidara, who started in radio as a classical music announcer
before switching to rock, recalled how ''Robert J. pronounced all the names
better than I did. But he was also a guy who could talk to me, a kid from
Milford. Even though he had that supreme confidence on the air, it was
never pompous. I felt like we could sit in a bar and have a beer. The man
was just one of a kind.''
Born in Cambridge, Robert John Lurtsema grew up in a family he once
described as being ''as unmusical as a family can be.'' The first classical
piece he could recall hearing was ''Cloudburst,'' from Ferd Grofe's ''Grand
Canyon Suite.'' ''That is about as graphic and approachable as a classical
work can be,'' Mr. Lurtsema once said. ''I was completely taken.'' He began
taking piano lessons at the Roxbury Boys Club and attending concerts.
A graduate of English High School, Mr. Lurtsema spent four years in
the Navy, where his duties included running a 200-watt radio station in
He graduated from Boston University in 1957 and over the next decade
held a truly impressive array of jobs: lumberjack, construction worker,
trapeze artist, carpenter, encyclopedia salesman, diving instructor, commercial
artist, and for five years presided over a folk music program on WCRB.
He lived in New York for three years, working in advertising and publishing,
and managed a national chain of teenage discotheques, the Hullabaloo
In 1968, he returned to Boston and took up painting. He was in
his studio one day when he heard a WGBH announcer misidentify a
Mozart composition. Phoning in a correction, Mr. Lurtsema was informed
there was an opening for a weekend classical music announcer. He got the
job and began at the station in June 1971. Asked to switch to a Monday-Friday
schedule, Mr. Lurtsema proposed he handle the announcing chores for all
seven mornings. He thrived on the resulting 70-hour work week.
Mr. Lurtsema would generally take five hours to prepare each five-hour
program, doing the scheduling three months in advance. He tended to program
the early hours chronologically, with music of the medieval, Baroque, and
Classical eras predominating (''Nothing too jarring before 9 a.m.,'' he
liked to say). He would key his programming to composers' birthdays, holidays,
historical events, the change of seasons, and the like. Sunday mornings
he would broadcast a Bach cantata and he delighted in programming various
musical cycles - each of Haydn's symphonies, say, or the complete works
of Mozart played in the order of their composition.
Live performances and interviews were an important part of ''Morning
Pro Musica.'' Aaron Copland, Nadia Boulanger, John Cage, Yehudi Menuhin,
Itzhak Perlman, and Isaac Stern - to name but a few - all paid visits to
Mr. Lurtsema's studio.
Shortish, stout, and balding, Mr. Lurtsema cut a distinctive figure
off the air. He was a dedicated citizen of the local cultural world, serving
on the boards of numerous institutions and frequently appearing with various
performing arts groups, ranging from the Boston Symphony to the
Winter Consort. He narrated documentaries and did voice-overs for PBS
promotions and commercials. In addition to his painting, he composed and
wrote. His bassoon quartet was adapted for the theme of
Mr. Lurtsema published two books, ''A Pocketful of Verse'' and
the ''Robert J. Lurtsema Musical Quiz Book.'' The former got Mr.
Lurtsema into trouble last year when he was accused of having plagiarized
there a poem by Don Marquis (Mr. Lurtsema apologized, saying the attribution
Mr. Lurtsema leaves his companion, Betsy Northrup, of Wellesley; his
mother, Dorothy, of Stoughton; two sisters, Jacqueline MacLennan, of Raynham,
and Loraine, of Tucson; and a brother, David, of Tucson.
Funeral plans are incomplete.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.