Martin Bookspan, a classical music broadcaster, author, critic and lecturer, who was well-known locally for his work with the the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, died peacefully at his home in Aventura, Fla. on Thursday.
A former part-time resident of Stockbridge who spent summers in the Berkshires for more than 50 years, Bookspan was 94.
Known for his distinctive delivery during his 60-year broadcasting career, Bookspan served as a host and commentator for live broadcasts of the BSO, Boston Pops, the New York Philharmonic and the American Symphony Orchestra under its founder, Leopold Stokowski. He was also the lead commentator for “Live at Lincoln Center” on PBS for the show’s first 30 years, until 2006.
A native of Boston, Bookspan first became involved with Tanglewood in 1947 as an audience member. He hosted the weekly “This Week from Tanglewood,” a roundtable discussion series from both the stage at Tanglewood and the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield for many years.
Bookspan was so well known at the BSO’s summer home in Lenox that the words “the Voice of Classical Music” were inscribed on his regular seat in The Shed on his 85th birthday, according to Renee Rotta of Lenox, a frequent concert companion, who served as the BSO’s marketing coordinator from 2014-19.
“He was a presence,” said The Berkshire Eagle music critic Andrew Pincus, who knew Bookspan for more than 30 years and sat in the row in front of him during concerts at The Shed. “You knew when you saw him or spoke to him that he was a part of BSO history. ... He was really a walking encyclopedia of that place [Tanglewood] and that orchestra. He could tell you anything you wanted to know about who played what, when. He seemed to have a photographic memory for that stuff going back to before he was born.”
“I believe that he’s the last living link who had a 50-year friendship with Serge Koussevitzky, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein,” said Rotta, referring to the founder of Tanglewood, and Copland and Bernstein, two famous composers. “That’s a pretty remarkable achievement.
“He loved the Berkshires, and he was passionate about Tanglewood,” said Rotta, who knew Bookspan for 10 years. “His magic was that he was able to transfer his love for music through his wonderful stories through the channels of broadcasting on television and radio.”
Bookspan was known as “The voice of the New York Philharmonic” for his work with that orchestra. For many years, he served as the commentator for BSO broadcasts on WQXR, one of the country’s leading classical music stations. Bookspan is also referred to as “the voice of Tanglewood” in several local newspaper articles, although those who knew him well said that it was not an official title.
A Boston Red Sox fan, Bookspan referred to sports when describing his broadcasting ability to the New York Times in 2006.
“Basically, if I have a technique, it’s the technique of the sportscaster,” Bookspan said.. “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.”
As an author, Bookspan wrote more than 500 reviews of newly released recordings, served as the tape critic and columnist for the New York Times, as a record reviewer for Consumer Reports and wrote several books, including biographies of Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta. He served as a music, dance and theater critic for two New York City television stations and as critic-at-large for WNAC-TV in Boston. Bookspan hosted the NBC Television series “The Eternal Light” and also spent five years as the announcer for the CBS-TV soap opera “Guiding Light.” He received several honorary degrees.
“His legacy is extraordinary,” Rotta said. “We’re all grieving the loss of a legend, particularly someone who was beloved in the BSO family.”
Born in Boston on July 30, 1926, Bookspan developed an interest in the BSO and classical music through his father.
“His father would take him to concerts and he became an usher and that experience allowed him to listen to multiple performances of the same concert,” Rotta said. “He would attend them all on Fridays and Saturdays and really became the go-to guy. His knowledge was so extensive.”
Bookspan attended Harvard College, graduating cum laude in 1947 with a degree in German literature. While pledging for a fraternity at Harvard, Bookspan interviewed Copland on the college radio station. In an interview with The Eagle in March, Bookspan said the interview is when Copland made the first public mention of his famous work “Appalachian Spring.”
Bookspan, who also lived in New York City, became a part-time Berkshire resident in the late 1940s. He spent all but three summers living in Stockbridge between 1947 and 2019, according to Eagle files.
Bookspan’s wife of 54 years, opera director and drama coach Janet Bookspan, died in 2008. He is survived by their three children: Rachel Sobel (Richard), David Bookspan, Deborah Margol (Scott), 6 grandchildren, 1 great-grandchild, and a world full of music.
Funeral arrangements are private. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made online, by mail, or by phone to the Tanglewood Annual Fund or the American-Israel Cultural Foundation in New York City.