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Happy Birthday, Robert J!

By Benjamin K. Roe   |   Monday, November 14, 2011
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Nov. 14th, 2011, would have been the 80th birthday of the “Voice of New England,” Robert J. Lurtsema, the indefatigable host of Morning Pro Musica on WGBH for nearly three decades.

How to describe the impact of this itinerant lumberjack-turned-construction worker-Navy seaman-trapeze artist-carpenter-encyclopedia salesman-diving instructor-commercial artist-actor-ad salesman ... (and I’m probably forgetting something) … who eventually found his calling behind the microphone? Let’s leave the capsule description to the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame:

Robert J “as he became known, was, arguably, the most recognizable classical music voice in New England broadcast history. His idiosyncratic style of DJ’ing and news reporting, his calm voice and often long pauses, plus his extensive knowledge of music (he himself had had no “classical” music training) helped establish WGBH as a significant, essential radio service. Morning pro Musica, ran for nearly 30 years (1971-2000). For 23 of those years he was on the air seven mornings a week, five hours a day. The program was also syndicated throughout in New England. His signature opening pieces, one for each day of the week, were accompanied by his personally made recordings of chirping birds, suggesting the show (which began at 7 a.m.) as virtually the first thing his listeners heard each day.

Robert J. has been gone for more than a decade now, but his influence is felt every day that Classical New England is on the air. Every weekend morning still begins with the “Dawn Chorus” of birdsong. Not a week goes by without a Sunday morning performance of a Bach cantata on The Bach Hour. And it bears remembering that Robert J. Lurtsema was a vital part of the history of both WGBH and WCRB, where he was the host of Folk City USA, for five years.

And to think…it all began with a cloudburst. Growing up in what he called a “decidedly unmusical family,” Robert J. once recalled that the first classical piece he heard was ''Cloudburst,'' from Ferde Grofe's ''Grand Canyon Suite.'' ''That is about as graphic and approachable as a classical work can be,'' he said. ''I was completely taken.''

The rest, as they say, is history. And I cannot help but consider that history as we celebrate Robert J’s 80th birth anniversary today with a mixture both of his favorite pieces of music, and some of the memorable daily themes.

I, too, was the one of the legions of students in the “Lurtsema School of Music,” where waking up to Morning Pro Musica was invariably more reassuring than going to sleep to another late-night loss by the Sox on the west coast. To be sure, Robert J. had his fans…and he had his detractors. But as we carry on his legacy at Classical New England, I can only marvel at his signal accomplishment: Robert J. Lurtsema made classical music on the radio consequential. What he programmed, what he said, where he went mattered to a population far beyond the practice rooms and the concert halls. That’s an inspiring – and occasionally daunting! – legacy.

Robert J. Lurtsema died before his time at the age of 68. But not before fulfilling his frequently-cited admonition of Horace Mann, etched on a plaque at his Boston University alma mater: “Be ashamed to die until you have achieved some victory for humanity.”

To hear an Robert J. Lurtsema with violinist Isaac Stern on Morning Pro Musica, click on "Listen" above.

Bach at the Toy Store

Monday, November 7, 2011
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J.S. Bach meets F.A.O. Schwartz

Early Season Storm Takes 99.5 Off Air

Sunday, October 30, 2011
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O mio babbino caro….

By Laura Carlo   |   Tuesday, October 25, 2011
3 Comments   3 comments.

Oct. 26

My father was facing surgery early one April many years ago and was dismayed that just before he had to go into the hospital his order of a dozen-plus heritage rose bushes was delivered early - too early to plant for our Boston gardening zone. Dad had specified that they be delivered two months later ... but things can go wrong with mail order....and now he had to deal with all these roses.

It was important that these rose bushes were saved because roses are very important to us as a family. When we children were born my father picked a rose from his own prize-winners every day and placed it in a vase near our cribs. He kept that up the whole first year of our lives: Red for his first-born, rosy-cheeked me, yellow for my fair little sister and healthy pink for his strapping son---so that the first thing that his "babies would see when they awoke was a rose.”

I returned the favor when Daddy turned 65---66 ruby red long stemmed roses (one to grown on)!

Now what to do with all these bare root rose bushes scrunched up in a soggy set of cardboard buckets left by the delivery man on the cold front stairs? Even though Daddy was a master rose gardener it was a huge task for one person, and given his impending surgery and the time of year there wasn't any time to waste, so I volunteered to help him.

I had never planted a rose bush before, but my father was very patient with me as he showed me step-by-step how to prepare the planting holes, test and amend the soil with organic compost and materials, carefully part the roots and plant and water just so. He showed me how, and just as important, he carefully explained "why" for each step. My usually quiet father was inspired to share with me how much he had loved roses from when he was a little boy. Although he often went hungry in war-torn Italy, and he was frightened of the sounds of war as a youngster, his mother kept pointing out to him that there was still beauty to be found in the world, including the exquisite, perfumed roses of Rome. He never forgot how roses came to symbolize all things hopeful and beautiful.

We worked quietly, then, side by side, and saving those rose bushes took us most of that day. When we were done my father surprised me by hanging a little sign that he had had a local hardware store make that read “The Laura Rose Garden,” something he was intending to do all along. He secured it to one of the larger front rose bushes for all passersby to see.

I have been winning trophies and ribbons and accolades my whole life but no prize ever meant so much to me.

No, not the naming.

The chance to plant roses with my father.

Rest in peace, my Daddy Carlo.

(image of rose by Parvin via Flickr;  Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tenor Joseph Calleja in Live Video Webcast

By Tom Huizenga/NPR Music   |   Sunday, October 23, 2011
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Classical New England, with NPR Music, brings you a live video webcast of one of today's most exciting young opera stars.  To celebrate the release of "The Maltese Tenor," Joseh Calleja performs at Le Poisson Rouge, in New York City's Greenwich Village.

Join us at 7:30pm for the webcast (audio only or video), and join in the discussion with other listeners below.

As a kid growing up on the tiny island of Malta, Joseph Calleja was always singing something -- nursery rhymes, pop songs. He even grooved to heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden (still does, actually). And then one day he watched a movie that would change his life --The Great Caruso, starring American tenor Mario Lanza.

"When he launched into 'Tarentella Napoletana,'" Calleja recalls, "I absolutely was amazed at the sound quality of his voice, and I was hooked since then."

These days, Calleja sings in the best opera houses and enjoys the career of an opera star -- although he doesn't think of himself that way. Maybe that's why he's hosting this record release party and concert for his new album, "The Maltese Tenor," at one of Greenwich Village's hippest music clubs, (Le) Poisson Rouge. He's invited a few friends, too -- violinist Daniel Hope and fellow opera singers Luca Pisaroni and Katie Van Kooten, as well as an orchestra and conductor Steven Mercurio.

Calleja's sound -- marked by a warm, flickering vibrato and the ability to float soft high notes to the rafters -- sets him apart from other tenors today. Just a few notes and you know it's him singing. But while his sound is his own, Calleja has at least partly modeled it on such great tenors from a century ago as Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Tito Schipa and Alessandro Bonci.

"In some ways I do try and not imitate but emulate what they did," Calleja says. "You can immediately recognize their ethereal style of singing. Everything is floating on the breath. That's what the Italians call cantare soffiato, singing on the breath. They make it sound effortless, but it isn't. And that should be the prerequisite for anyone who wants to sing bel canto, the ability to spin those kind of phrases but also to bring them down to a whisper."

Calleja will have plenty of opportunity to show off his old school sound in this concert of opera arias by Verdi, Puccini, Massenet and Bizet. Please join us in the chat room we'll have open during the concert to discuss the music.

On the program:

VERDI: "Forse, la soglia" (Ballo in Maschera)

PUCCINI: "Recondita armonia" (Tosca)

DVORAK: "Song to the Moon" (Rusalka)

MASSENET: "Porquoi me reveiller" (Werther)

PUCCINI: "E lucevan le stelle" (Tosca)

BIZET: "Au fond du temple" (Pearl Fishers)

PUCCINI: "O soave fanciulla" (La Boheme)

MOZART: "Madamina" (Don Giovanni)

LARA: "Granada"

DI CAPUA: "O Sole Mio"

D'HARDELOT: "Because"

(image of Joseph Calleja by Johannes Ifkovitz, courtesy of the artist)

Audio-only stream:


Franz Liszt at 200

Tuesday, October 18, 2011
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Franz Liszt (via Wikimedia Commons)

Classical New England celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt with special broadcasts and on-demand performances that highlight the range and genius of this unique musical figure.



Marc-André Hamelin (image by Fran Kaufman, courtesy of the artist)

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin gave a concert dedicated to Liszt in our Fraser Performance Studio, broadcast nationally by American Public Media. 
One of today's great Liszt interpreters, Hamelin was joined by Fred Child, host of Performance Today, heard on Classical New England each weeknight at 7pm, and a studio audience.  Along with Liszt's greatest piano masterpiece, the Sonata in B minor, Hamelin also performed Waldesrauschen and the Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H.

Hear the program and see a slideshow on-demand


Franz Liszt birthplace, Raiding, Austria (image courtesy of Liszt Festival Raiding)

Several commemorative concerts took place in Europe, and Classical New England brings you highlights from several of them.  Cathy Fuller hosts a program that includes performances from the Liszt Festival in Raiding, Austria, with the Vienna Academy Orchestra and conductor Martin Haselböck, as well as highlights from a concert at Prague Conservatory with pianist Jitka Cechová, Schubert song transcriptions by Liszt performed by Luiza Borac at Romanian Radio Concert Hall, and choral works sung by the BBC Singers at Wigmore Hall in London.

Hear the program on-demand

Christian Thielemann (image by Matthias Creutziger, courtesy of Staatskapelle Dresden

Monday, Oct. 24, through Friday, Oct. 28, at noon, Alan McLellan's Café Europa presents works from more European concerts in commemoration of the Liszt bicentennial, including a concert given in Bayreuth with conductor Christian Thielemann and pianist Konstantin Sherbakov.  Selections include Liszt's two piano concertos, as well as Totentanz. 

Here is the complete schedule:

Wanderer Fantasy
Peter Roesel, piano; Orchestre National de France; Manlio Benzi, conductor

Hear the performance on-demand

Piano Concerto No. 1
Benedetto Lupo, piano; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Marc Andreae, conductor

Hear the performance on-demand

Piano Concerto No. 2
Konstantin Sherbakov, piano; Project Orchestra of the Weimar Liszt School of Music; Christian Thielemann, conductor

Hear the performance on-demand

Konstantin Sherbakov, piano; Project Orchestra of the Weimar Liszt School of Music; Christian Thielemann, conductor

Hear the performance on-demand

Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Marc Andreae, conductor

Hear the performance on-demand

Classical New England's Cathy Fuller

The bicentennial also offers a chance to look at other great performances from Classical New England.  Cathy Fuller has rounded up many of her favorites, in a selection that shows the full range of the composer's genius.

Hear and read about Cathy's selections.


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