The recent resignation of Suzanne Nance from her morning classical music program on MPBN prompted some thoughts on the role of the classical DJ in a world where almost any music one desires can by pulled instantaneously out of the clouds.
When I first came to Maine, I was captivated by “Morning Pro Musica” with Robert J. Lurtsema (1931-2000), originating in Boston and carried by Maine public radio. His style, from the laid-back era of Bob and Ray, has gone the way of the morning bird chorus with which he opened the show.
Lurtsema had no classical music training, and joked that he learned along with his listeners. But he had a good ear for the best performances of the standard repertoire and a zeal for education without a hint of pedantry.
For example, he would play all of the Beethoven string quartets in chronological order — a musical education in itself, but one that the average listener could follow, hearing the development of the form for himself.
Lurtsema never took himself too seriously, and his pronunciation of musical terms and composers’ names was somewhat Churchillian. (“That’s the way I pronounce it.”)
Classical music was not some crystal vase that would be damaged by vulgar hands.
He loved music and musicians, and interviewed some of the most famous of the day, but was seldom a booster, and never obsequious or sickly sweet.
Lurtsema eventually received formal training in music and became a composer, and after his death, a scholarship was established in his name.
I’ve gone on about Robert J. for some length because I think he exemplifies the value of a knowledgeable guide (aka classical DJ) when listening to classical music on the radio.
Algorithms that select recordings based on a history of likes and dislikes just won’t cut it, because they never broaden one’s horizons.
They also tend to select random performances, when performance of a classic is everything.
A bad playing of the most glorious work in the repertoire can turn a listener away forever. (For example, Christopher Hogwood’s “authentic” performances of boring old music, which in another version one could come to love immediately.)
The word “love” is important, too. The good DJ has to love music without revering it, continuously search for the best possible renderings of it, and present them to his or her audience with the joy of someone discovering a gold nugget. Enthusiasm is infectious.
The corollary should be candor about what is transcendent, excellent, good, average and lousy. Performances of the sort that raise the hair on the back of your neck are few and far between, and beg to be passed on to others.
I’m reminded of what the former poet laureate, Joseph Brodsky, said about his allied calling (I’m paraphrasing): “Poetry is not entertainment, nor even art, but our beacon, our evolutionary goal.”
Once the love of a work is conveyed to the audience, then is the time for revealing more about its setting and even, without being pedantic, some of its recognizable technical features.
He or she should also be willing to try something new — not to shove contemporary music down anyone’s throat, but to pass along excitement about discoveries.
Here is where a DJ’s taste and sensitivity can never be replaced by an algorithm. Throughout history, only 1 percent of written music has been worthy of survival, and the ratio holds good today. The 1 percent of today’s music, when found, can be as exciting and moving as Mozart or Beethoven.
A dose of humor and iconoclasm wouldn’t hurt. Robert J. read the news before his program, and on Nov. 5, 1980 (Reagan vs. Carter), declared that nothing of interest had occurred overnight.
Like the conductor of last week’s “La Boheme,” Israel Gursky, he was a master of pauses and totally unconcerned with dead air.
Come to think of it, with the rise of “talk is cheap” radio, more dead air would be a good idea.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: