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

Martin Bookspan, a radio and television announcer known to millions of classical music aficionados as the voice of the New York Philharmonic and the PBS series "Live From Lincoln Center," his expert yet accessible commentary an aural pleasure all its own, died April 29 at his home in Aventura, Fla. He was 94.

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

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

He was a radio commentator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well as the New York Phil. 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.

Ensconced inside cramped broadcast booths - on at least one occasion, he was billeted in a restroom at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall - 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," Bookspan 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."

His admirers came to rely on his vast knowledge of classical music, an expertise he had cultivated since his childhood in a Boston tenement. His parents, also devotees of classical music, had loyally tuned in to radio programming of the kind their son would later host.

John Goberman, the founding producer of "Live From Lincoln Center," recalled that Bookspan had an ever-ready supply of material to fill unexpected pauses, such as when a performer suddenly high-tailed it offstage to fetch a forgotten necktie, as well as longer gaps, as when a performance of the New York Philharmonic ended 17 or 18 minutes before the allotted airtime elapsed.

"He brought the music and the art form to life through his passion - but in a way that did not feel like a lecture," Fred Child, who succeeded Bookspan as announcer of "Live From Lincoln Center" in 2006, said in an interview. "It never felt like he was talking down to you. It felt like a friend sharing something he loves with you."

A self-described "failed violinist," Bookspan began his radio career as a student at Harvard University, where he conducted his first on-air interview with the American composer Aaron Copland.

"I asked him what he was working on," 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.

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

"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 Times once wrote, describing his tenure with "Live From Lincoln Center." He had a way of "coaxing them into their seats with a tease of a pre-concert lecture," the reporter continued, "keeping them tuned in during intermissions with easy-to-digest program notes and anecdotes, and then sealing the evening with a buoyant summation or perhaps a succinct rave."

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.

"There he was performing Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2., flailing away with a vengeance, pounding the pedals for all they were worth, caught up in the work and oblivious to all else," Bookspan told the Times in 1960. "Suddenly, toward the close of the second movement, the music stopped. Serkin's exertions had torn the pedal lyre away from the piano. While repairs were underway, I was left alone with a silent microphone. I managed to describe the scene during the ten-minute delay, but I shall never forget the experience."

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

One day during the Great Depression, a violin teacher knocked on the family's door in search of students. They had little money, but Bookspan's mother, feeling her young son tugging on her apron in interest, scrounged up enough to pay for lessons. Bookspan later studied at a music academy in Boston before enrolling at Harvard.

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. Bookspan found an outlet for his interest in classical music at the university radio station, the Harvard Crimson Network, where he became classical music director and, later, president. He received a bachelor's degree in German literature in 1947.

In the 1950s, Bookspan was executive director of the New England Opera Theater before becoming coordinator of radio, television and recording for the BSO. He contributed classical music criticism to publications including the Times and, with Ross Yockey, co-authored biographies of the conductor Zubin Mehta and the crossover composer André Previn.

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

Bookspan lived for much of the year in Manhattan and spent summers in Stockbridge, Mass., where he had a home roughly a mile from the main gate of Tanglewood, the summer home of the BSO.

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, 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."

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