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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Martin Bookspan

Martin Bookspan

One of the most visible of men in and around music circles today is Martin Bookspan. Or in his case perhaps it would be more accurate to say "audible," Bookspan being recognized by music lovers throughout the United States mainly by his distinctively rich broadcaster's voice. But taking to the airwaves is only one of the multiple areas of his involvement. For one not himself a composer or performer, Martin Bookspan ranks among music's most versatile practitioners.

Boston born and Harvard educated, Bookspan grew up in a family whose love of music was passionate and broad-based. His father was a particular enthusiast of Jewish liturgical music and often took young Marty to hear the artistry of the world's most celebrated cantors. At the age of six, it was time to begin his formal musical studies and the violin was chosen as the most suitable instrument. Turned on to listening from earliest childhood — the radio was, of course, an inexhaustible resource for music — the boy was soon old enough to usher at Symphony Hall. There he heard not only the glorious sound of concert music performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra — Serge Koussevitzky was then its music director and all the world's great artists trooped by in a never-ending flow — but also, through the Pops, a colorful canvas of show, dance, folk and pop tunes. Music for Martin was pluralistic from the outset, and as boundlessly fascinating as the men and women who wrote and played it.

By the time he got to Harvard, he already had a pretty good notion of high professional standards and realized that a concert career as a violinist was not for him. He put his fiddle down and has never picked it up again. (His major at Harvard was German literature.) It was at college, however, that he was first able to combine his gifts: a fine ear, legendary memory, natural ability to organize, driving inquisitiveness, and of course that wonderful speaking voice. He became music director for Boston's radio station WBMS a year before his 1947 graduation, going on to WCOP and WBZ (1951-56), before becoming music and program director of New York's WQXR (1956-67).

His twenty years of direct involvement in "good music radio" give him a broad perspective. He points out that we have — between commercial and non-commercial concert music stations — far greater depth than when he was in Boston in the 40's, with over 250 such outlets throughout the country. "They are an oasis in the middle of the desert. They really do in their communities a service which can only be done by radio. They bring to their public the new technology-most stations play c.d.'s now — as well as concert tapes from the orchestras which syndicate, and new record releases." While people may not depend on radio as exclusively today as they did before the mass media explosion of the past decades, they listen best while riding in their cars. "The car has become a medium of complete involvement in music listening."

On the other side of the coin, Bookspan worries about radio's chief abuse: off-the-air taping. "The practice is a transgression of Federal and moral law. It deprives composers and publishers of income which is due them. It robs the record companies of countless millions and certainly takes away the incentive to continue to record. Our conscience must dictate that the Congress enact legislation taxing blank audio and video tape, just as is the case in every country of western Europe, and put this money at the disposal of composers, publishers and record companies."

On June 5, 1967 — he remembers it because it was the first day of the Six-Day War — he gave notice at WQXR that he wanted to leave to devote himself to writing and becoming a freelance broadcaster. Some months later, he accepted an invitation to become coordinator of Symphonic and Concert Activities for ASCAP, a position he held for fifteen years and which brought him into close contact with virtually every composer in America. A stipulation of his employment was that he be permitted to continue his writing and broadcasting activities. He had already authored 101 Masterpieces of Music & Their Composers (Doubleday, 1968 & Dolphin, 1973), The New York Times Guide to Recorded Music (Macmillan, 1968), as well as countless record reviews and articles for a covey of periodicals. When NPR began a series of interview programs with composers, Bookspan was asked to host its Composers' Forum. The feature continued for nearly seven years.

Bookspan figures that, between the written and broadcast media, he has conducted well over 1,000 interviews. He will never forget his very first, undertaken at the time he was still an undergraduate working on a term project. "Sure," said the ever-amiable Aaron Copland to this eager young man, "go ahead and ask me." (Bookspan has occasion to review this first effort from an old radio transcription not too long ago and "was not ashamed of it at all.") Every once in a while a subject proves difficult. Perhaps the most trying interview he ever conducted was with the composer of one of our most controversial popculture musicals who proved to be entirely noncommunicative, responding in monosyllables and obviously regretting that he had ever agreed to this type of exposure. But mostly, Bookspan has an incredible knack of getting people to talk freely about themselves.

Martin Bookspan beams at the very mention of his family: his wife Janet, herself a well-known figure as narrator and stage director, and his three grown-up and married children, David, a Washington attorney, Rachel, a psychiatric social worker in Boston, and Debbie, administrative assistant to Stephen Sell, the executive director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He met Jan when she was a senior at Emerson College and is obviously amused as he remembers their very first date. She was ushering at her college's performance of Kurt Weill's Street Scene and was committed to going to a cast party thereafter. "The performance was not bad at all. The party was awful. We spent maybe ten minutes there before going to a local coffee shop where we chatted for hours. That was in May. We were engaged around the Fourth of July and married that October."

Known on radio as the Voice of the New York Philharmonic since 1975, Bookspan's widest audience circle has been developed through "that" other broadcast medium, television. He is host and commentator for all the Live from Lincoln Center and Great Performances telecasts which have included concerts, operas and dance presentations. His interviewing techniques have stood him in good stead as a researcher and writer, and he has used his cassette recorder in gathering data for the two books he has coauthored (with Ross Yockey), Zubin: The Zubin Mehta Story (Harper & Row, 1978) and André Previn: A Biography (Doubleday, 1981). He recalls how the Mehta biography, which ends with the conductor's music directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had to be rushed into print. It seems that Mehta and Bookspan were standing together on the last December day of 1975, admiring the magnificent view of Catalina Island from the conductor's front yard. "I can never conceive of leaving this place," Mehta remarked. The next day he had another visitor: Carlos Moseley, president of the New York Philharmonic. By coincidence, Moseley and Bookspan were on the same New York-bound plane on January 2 and, on being asked what he was doing in southern California, Moseley smiled innocently and said, "Oh, I just took a few days off to visit some old friends out here." Although the Mehta stewardship in New York could not begin until the 1978-79 season, its announcement was publicized a few days after that chance Moseley - Bookspan encounter.

He chuckles as he recollects that the Mehta biography was something of a fluke. He had originally conceived of a number of books by different authors on major U.S. symphony orchestras. The history of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was of particular interest to him, so he reserved this book for himself and was in the process of finding other authors to do Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia when the publisher dropped the whole project. With hardly a Luftpause, Bookspan came up with the counter-suggestion: how about a book on young Mehta who had already taken three continents by storm?

Not content to rest on the secure laurels of his ASCAP position, Bookspan surprised the music world in 1983 by becoming artist and repertory director for The Moss Music Group, an enterprising roster of recording labels. He makes no secret of the jeopardy in which he finds the entire recording industry, describing it as "an endangered species." Not only is it compelled to cope with the home taping dilemma and its economic implications, but with the overall question of its very raison d'étre. There is, after all, virtually nothing of the music of the past which has not already been recorded. If consumers resist contemporary music, what should record companies now record? Bookspan's chief reply — and one senses that he himself feels an insufficiency in his response — is the new technology, the ability to make standard works available in ever improving fidelity.

In all the many dimensions of his professional activity, Bookspan has been required to interact dynamically with musicians. He thinks of himself as a communicator among communicators and he has a keen insight into the creative personality. "It's a very lonely existence. They may — particularly the performers — surround themselves with entourages, but they remain so alone. The composer, painter, playwright, poet, their time is spent in solitude. The human condition must react traumatically to that kind of aloneness."

On the other end of the spectrum is the audience to whom the creative artist must address himself. Potentially, Bookspan says, every human being in the world is a consumer of the artist's expression and, taken all together, constitutes the market. That there is often a gulf between the professional artist on the one hand and the rest of mankind on the other seems irrefutable. But how to bridge that gulf? "It's precisely that question which The Association for Classical Music is asking itself. How do you do it?" [see page 14] Bookspan is the Association's chairman and feels that much can and must be done to make concert music of the past and present attractive to more people. "A questionnaire has gone out to some school districts in which sixth and tenth graders were asked to respond to the question: `What is classical music?' The responses have been extremely interesting and indicate that the educational job to be done is formidable."

Did Martin Bookspan think that the role of music in our society differs today from when he was growing up in the shadow of Boston's Symphony Hall? "Music made me aware of a big universe, although I was living in only a small community. It was a shared experience with countless millions of others whom I would never know. There was something almost mystical about it. I wonder if there is, today, the same kind of magic. Or has it become a little common, a bit more workaday and less ... sanctified? It may have something to do with over-saturation, with the proliferation of available listening opportunities. Some of the specialness has gone."

This spring, Martin Bookspan received the Medal of Honor for Music from the National Arts Club, joining such past recipients as Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers, Olga Koussevitzky, and Rudolf Bing. A distinguished gathering assembled to pay tribute to a musical facilitator and a master communicator. In the program, they read a capsule summation of the honoree's career, the last line of which stated: "It is difficult to estimate the enormous influence he has had over the tastes and appreciation of music in thousands of listeners not only in the large urban centers where music is always available but also in remote areas wherever his voice is heard."

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