ROBERT J. LURTSEMA
June 26, 2000 would have marked mark Robert J.’s 29th anniversary as host and executive producer of Morning pro musica, public radio’s popular program of primarily classical music. For 23 years, beginning in 1971, he broadcast his program live seven days a week, five hours a day, from 7 AM to 12 noon. His program always began with the songs of birds. Robert J.’s deep and resonant voice was well known to hundreds of thousands of listeners, and was often called “The Voice of New England.” His program became an innovative mixture of music, news, weather, live performances, and conversations with special guests. The list of the artists with whom he had conversations and who performed on his program could provide a history of music for the 29 years he was on the air. Robert J. planned Morning pro musica several months in advance, carefully scheduling his programs around thematic concepts, holidays of many cultures, musical anniversaries, and community musical events. In recent years, in addition to his broadcasts, he continually sought new ways to bring classical music into the lives of children. For five years, from 1995-2000, he was the artistic director and host of the “Brown Bags for Kids” series at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachsuetts.
Robert J. was born November 14, 1931, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After serving in the United States Navy, he graduated with honors from Boston University, where he studied liberal arts, drama, broadcasting and journalism. He then supported his pursuits as an actor and director in theatre by working at various radio stations. Among his many activities, he was music director for the Concert Network; full time producer/host of Folk City USA, a two hour nightly live performance radio show; and co-host of a weekly jazz program with Father Norman J. O’Connor, the “jazz priest.” He was editor of Sing Out! Magazine, as well as a lumberjack, trapeze artist, and regional sales manager for Encyclopedia Britannica.
With his years of theatrical experience and his musical expertise, Robert J. became very much in demand as an actor/narrator for musical compositions. Many composers wrote pieces specifically for his multi-voiced narration. He performed with the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, the Paul Winter Consort, and countless other orchestras, chamber groups, and accompanists. Mr. Lurtsema recorded numerous LP’s, cassettes, and CD’s, and taped hundreds of voice-overs for PBS, corporate films, and award-winning documentaries, dramas, and commercials. His recording of Christmas stories has become a classic.
A man of many talents, Mr. Lurtsema was also acclaimed as a poet, author, composer, painter, and photographer. He had two books of his own published, A Pocketful of Verse and the Robert J. Lurtsema Musical Quiz Book; composed songs, a film score, and chamber pieces, including a bassoon quartet which was adapted to become the theme for Julia Child’s television series on PBS; and had one-man shows of his paintings. In 1975 the New England Conservatory of Music awarded him a lifetime scholarship. He was intensely interested in science, and saw seven total solar eclipses during his lifetime. He revered the earth and all its inhabitants, and worked tirelessly for the environment and for world peace.
Through invitations from the governments of France, Israel, Germany, Scotland, Greece, Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands, Mr. Lurtsema was an ambassador abroad for American media. He spent six weeks in India recording music and interviews that resulted in the informative Learning About Raga series broadcast one Saturday morning a month on his program. On the 200th anniversary of peaceful Dutch-American relations, Queen Beatrix invited him to the Netherlands as one of 40 distinguished Americans of Dutch heritage. Mr. Lurtsema was awarded two Goethe Institut scholarships that enabled him to study German in the Federal Republic of Germany. He received honorary doctorate degrees from universities in Massachusetts, New York, and Maine.
During the years between 1971 and 2000, Robert J. served on numerous boards of musical and charitable organizations in New England, some as chairman, some as president, many for more than ten years. He was a founder of and original participant in the Foxhollow Folk Festival, the International Artist Series, the Boston Early Music Festival, Burns Night, and numerous other undertakings which continue to flourish as thriving musical institutions.
On June 12, 2000, Robert J. Lurtsema passed away peacefully at age 68 after a long battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He left behind an extraordinarly rich artistic and intellectual legacy – some might even say a spiritual legacy. He always took seriously the quote from Horace Mann he saw on a plaque during his college years at Boston University’s College of General Education: “Be ashamed to die until you have achieved some victory for humanity.”