Robert J. Lurtsema
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Robert John Lurtsema (November 14, 1931 – June 12, 2000) was a public radio broadcaster.
Lurtsema hosted the classical music show Morning pro musica on WGBH in Boston, Massachusetts, from 1971 until his death from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He was known among public radio listeners throughout New England for his sonorous voice and his phrasing, which frequently included long pauses.
The long pauses, anathema to mainstream radio, were either tolerated or loved by his loyal listeners. "I'm not afraid of dead air," he was quoted as saying. "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."
Lurtsema also did a great deal of voice-over work, especially for public television documentaries and classical pieces that include narration.
In addition to his work in radio, Lurtsema was also a composer. In 1975, he was awarded a lifetime scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he began to study composition and theory. Among the songs, chamber works, and film scores he wrote are a bassoon quartet that became the theme music for the TV show Julia Child and Company.
"Robert J." or simply "Lurtz," as he was known, began his program in 1971, deciding to broadcast seven days a week, five hours a day. He had originally been hired for just the weekends, and then the weekday job opened up. Lurtsema felt that the nation was in turmoil and that he could bring some much-needed consistency to people's lives with his calm voice and reassuring presence, not sensationalizing the news. He accepted the weekday job while continuing the weekend job. This schedule lasted for 23 years, after which he was heard only on the weekends.
Lurtsema did many surveys of composers. He might play, for example, all the string quartets of Beethoven or Dvorák in order of composition at the same time each weekday, Monday through Friday. He himself had no exposure to classical music in his childhood, and so knew what it was like to grow up without any knowledge of it. He said that he learned along with his listeners.
Lurtsema's signature opening pieces, one for each day of the week, were accompanied by his own recordings of chirping birds. Ottorino Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite and one of Giovanni Gabrieli's triple brass quintets were among his opening themes. The show closed with Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and orchestra (K. 297b).
In addition to his calm manner, Lurtsema had a subtle sense of humor. He played the birdsong recording unaccompanied for the first part of his program, before fading in his classical opening piece for the day. On at least one occasion, on April 1, 1982, he celebrated April Fools' Day by giving the birds "the morning off" and substituting for them himself. On that morning, waking listeners were greeted by his measured, utterly deadpan voice offering an earnest spoken rendition of birdsong (i.e., "chirp... twitter... chirp... bob-WHITE!... chickadee-dee-dee...") for the length of time that the birds would normally have been heard unaccompanied. In 1992, his April Fools' broadcast featured the birds being replaced by howling wolves. Aware of his reputation for long pauses, on another April Fools' Day Lurtsema treated the listeners to a selection of his "best pauses."
Another example of Lurtsema's subtle sense of humor was the morning after the presidential election of 1980. He began the program as usual with a few minutes of birds, followed by that morning's theme music and his trademark introduction, "Good morning on this Wednesday morning. And now a look at the news, edited and reported by Morning Pro Musica's host, Robert J. Lurtsema." Then on that morning he went on to say, "There is no news worth reporting this morning," and went on with the program!
On the morning of April 5, 1985 at 10:25 EST (Good Friday of that year), it was arranged that over 8000 mostly popular music radio stations would simultaneously broadcast the song "We Are the World". Surprising many listeners and radio industry personnel, Robert J interrupted his classical music program to play the song as well.
Starting in 1995, Lurtsema and his production team traveled to Seranak at Tanglewood for the BSOs opening weekend of the summer season. Morning Pro Musica was broadcast live from the Serenak grounds for the weekend, featuring interviews and live performances with Seiji Ozawa, Roger Norrington, Boje Shovus, Claudio Abbado, Gil Shaham, Emmanuel Ax, John Williams, Arlo Guthrie, Maurice Abravenal and many others.
Lurtsema's partner, Betsy Northrup, then of Wellesley, Massachusetts, survived him. They had been a couple for ten years. He also left a mother, two sisters, and a brother.