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Martin Bookspan, broadcaster who brought classical music from concert halls into the home, dies at 94

Martin Bookspan, radio announcer for WQXR, posed in the radio booth backstage in the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood, ca. July 1960.
Martin Bookspan, radio announcer for WQXR, posed in the radio booth backstage in the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood, ca. July 1960.William Tague/Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives

He grew up near Symphony Hall, but Martin Bookspan’s love for classical music was not initially ignited by a concert at the venerable venue. The spark came from his family’s most treasured possession in the depths of the Depression: an Atwater Kent radio.

From the speaker came Beethoven and Bartok, Strauss and Sibelius, tuned to the classical stations of that era.

“It opened up a world for me,” Mr. Bookspan told the Berkshire Eagle earlier this year, a world vibrant with the sounds of the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

He would build a career bringing such music into the homes of millions of Americans, with his accessible commentary an aural pleasure all its own. Known to classical music aficionados as the voice of the New York Philharmonic and the PBS series “Live From Lincoln Center,” Mr. Bookspan died April 29 at his home in Aventura, Fla. He was 94.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to his family.

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In a broadcasting career that lasted more than half a century, Mr. Bookspan was affiliated with some of the most hallowed institutions on the American culture scene.

He was a radio commentator for the BSO as well as the New York Philharmonic. On public television, he served as an announcer for “Live From the Metropolitan Opera” in addition to “Live From Lincoln Center,” which he inaugurated in 1976, and which features ballets, symphonic and chamber music concerts, plays, and other performances presented at the New York arts complex.

“One-half erudite informer, the other half grandfatherly guide, he piloted two generations of listeners through the institution’s marbled halls,” a reporter for The New York Times once wrote, describing his tenure with “Live From Lincoln Center.”

He also was involved for decades with the Tanglewood music series in the Berkshires, where he long had a second home, in Stockbridge.

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He hosted a discussion series, “This Week from Tanglewood,” from the stage at Tanglewood or the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.

“For those familiar with Bookspan’s mellifluous voice and seemingly infinite musical knowledge, he had no equals in the world of broadcasting,’' the BSO said in a statement. “And for that and his deep love for music and Tanglewood, we are greatly honored and grateful.’'

That love of music spanned a lifetime.

“I believe that he’s the last living link who had a 50-year friendship with Serge Koussevitzky, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein,” Renee Rotta of Lenox, who served as the BSO’s marketing coordinator from 2014-19, told the Berkshire Eagle this week.

Born on July 30, 1926, Martin Bookspan was the only child of immigrants from the Jewish Pale of Settlement in imperial Russia. His father was a dry goods and later insurance salesman, and his mother was a homemaker. Both were lovers of music.

One day, a violin teacher knocked on the family’s door in search of students.

They had little money, but Mr. Bookspan’s mother felt her young son tugging on her apron, pleading. “Ma, Ma, I want to play the violin!” he said.

The family would scrounge up the 50 cents a week for the lessons.

In addition to his music studies, Mr. Bookspan would take a job as an usher at Symphony Hall. He said his first exposure in 1940 to Koussevitzky, the BSO’s towering music director who started the Tanglewood music series, set him “ablaze.”

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“His performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony lives with me to this day,” Mr. Bookspan said, “and it lit the fire that still burns inside me.”

He would later develop a relationship with Koussevitzky, whom he would refer to as “a beloved, wonderful uncle.’'

He also counted conductor Leonard Bernstein among his friends, the two having met at a Boston-area music quiz in their youth. Mr. Bookspan, age 13, received an honorable mention, according to The New York Times; Bernstein, who was eight years older, shared first prize.

Mr. Bookspan studied at a music academy in Boston before enrolling at Harvard University.

By that point, he once told the Palm Beach Post, ’'I realized I just wasn’t good enough to become the next generation’s Heifetz,’' a reference to the celebrated violinist Jascha Heifetz.

He would find an outlet for his passion in classical music at the university radio station, the Harvard Crimson Network, where he became classical music director and, later, president.

His first on-air interview was with Copland, the American composer.

“I asked him what he was working on,” Mr. Bookspan recalled to the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2006. “He said, ‘Well, Martha Graham has asked me to write a ballet for her. So I’m sort of in the middle of that.’ It turned out to be ‘Appalachian Spring,’ " an orchestral suite that was one of Copland’s signature compositions.

Mr. Bookspan received a bachelor’s degree in German literature in 1947.

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From 1952 to 1954, he was executive director for Boris Goldovsky’s New England Opera Theater before becoming coordinator of radio, television, and recording for the BSO.

After working for Boston-area radio stations, including WBMS, WCOP, and WBZ, Mr. Bookspan moved to WQXR, the classical station serving New York, where he was program director for more than a decade in the late 1950s and 1960s. His reservoir of knowledge and elegant delivery placed him in demand as a broadcaster.

Ensconced inside cramped broadcast booths - on at least one occasion, he was billeted in a restroom at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall - Mr. Bookspan helped deliver classical music to radio and TV audiences far larger than any concert hall could contain.

“If I have a technique, it’s the technique of the sportscaster,” he once told the New York Times. “As sportscasters make the game come alive, I hope I have made concerts come alive. I want the audience to become involved, to love what they’re hearing.”

When asked by the Enquirer if he had any regrets, Mr. Bookspan replied, “What I have not done, which is a frustration, is play-by-play baseball.”

Although classical music might appear to the uninitiated a staid and polished genre, it does not lack for backstage or even onstage drama. During one memorable appearance with the BSO in 1959, the pianist Rudolf Serkin broke his instrument's pedal lyre mid-performance.

Mr. Bookspan was taking a break and speaking to Copland when he realized something was awry.

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“I dashed across the back of the stage, up the two flights of stairs to where my broadcast booth was, on the way, picking up the information that there was a problem with the piano,” he said. “That was about 18½ minutes of empty air, which I filled with talk about Brahms and the BSO, Brahms and Symphony Hall, the relationship of Serkin to the BSO, French musicians and their attitude toward Brahms - anything that popped into my head.

“That’s the kind of challenge for which I lie in wait.”

He was married for 54 years to the former Janet Sobel, an opera director and drama coach who died in 2008. Survivors include their three children, Rachel Sobel and David Bookspan, both of Philadelphia, and Deborah Margol of Cooper City, Fla.; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

In the end, Mr. Bookspan enjoyed an unusual form of celebrity, one perfectly suited, in a sense, for music lovers. His admirers knew him not by his looks, but by the sound of his voice.

“The people at the next table will turn around and their ears will perk up and they’ll identify me,” he told the Palm Beach Post with amusement. “Sometimes it’s even happened when I’m walking on the street.”

Material from The Washington Post was used in this obituary.