By James A. Strain
Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra is just over 100 years old. For nearly half of the orchestra's history, from 1953 until his death in 2002, Michael Bookspan provided inspirational sounds from the stage to the audience. Wolfgang Sawallisch, Musical Director of the orchestra, characterized Bookspan's contribution by stating: "With nearly fifty years with our great Philadelphia Orchestra, Mr. Bookspan was a greatly valued leader of our percussion section, as well as a teacher and mentor to countless students and colleagues."
Joe Kluger, President of the Philadelphia Orchestra, recalls that Bookspan "had a wonderfully unique personality, exuding both quiet grace and boundless passion for all life had to offer, including music. We will miss the steady beat of his 'Bolero' snare drum, the dazzling dexterity of his marimba, and the elegance of his tall stature at the back of our stage."
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, Mickey, as his friends knew him, was the son of Harry and Sabina Bookspan. Receiving his first toy drum at age three and always encouraged to practice by his father, Mickey began taking drum lessons at age ten, first with a man named Wicht, then with Jimmy Lent and Sam Gershek, finally studying xylophone and percussion with Fred Albright.
While in high school, Bookspan performed with a USO troop in the New York-New Jersey area, and performed on the Amateur Hour several times, ultimately winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Show in 1948. After a year-and-a-half enlistment in the 657th AAF Band at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas, where he was often featured as a xylophone soloist, Bookspan spent five years at Juilliard as a student of Morris Goldenberg and Saul Goodman. While in school, he performed not only with the Little Orchestra Society of New York, the New York City Ballet, and the Xavier Cugat band, but also as a member of the famed Goldman Band for two years before graduating in 1953.
When Bookspan joined the Philadelphia Orchestra as Percussionist and Assistant Timpanist in 1953, the section consisted of Fred D. Hinger, James Valerio, and Benjamin Podemski. His tenure overlapped the careers of Charlie Owen, Alan Abel, Gerald Carlyss, Anthony Orlando, Don Liuzzi, and Angie Zator-Nelson, and he served as Principal of the section from 1972 until his death.
Reflecting on Bookspan's career and election to the PAS Hall of Fame, Don Liuzzi, Timpanist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, remarks, "Coming from the generation of players known for their quality of sound and the joy and humanity they brought to their symphonic playing, this acknowledgment of the quality of his work is long due and easily justified."
Alan Abel, himself a member of the PAS Hall of Fame, stated that Bookspan "had tremendous integrity in his musical performance, especially for such a long career. He was a true gentleman, with a dashing charisma, and symbolized the best characteristics one could have as a teacher and a musical artist."
Although Bookspan appeared as soloist numerous times with the Philadelphia Orchestra, often on marimba or xylophone for children's concerts, the highlight of his solo career was the commission and premiere of the Robert Suderberg "Concerto for Solo Percussion and Orchestra" in 1979. Gerald Carlyss, timpanist for the performance, remembers the premiere well. "I'll never forget him playing it. The audience learned a lot about percussion that night as they watched him gracefully move from instrument to instrument. It was like a musical ballet."
Keith Brion, conductor of the New Sousa Band, featured Bookspan with the Philadelphia Orchestra for a Sousa concert in August 1989. Regarding Bookspan's performance, Brion notes "He played 'Nola' and 'Flight of the Bumblebee,' and played them suavely, at fast tempos and brilliantly. He was a joy. He told me that these pieces won him a prize on the Amateur Hour when he was a teenager. They were beautiful and breathtaking in his interpretations."
As a teacher at both the Philadelphia University of the Arts and the Curtiss Institute of Music, Bookspan mentored several generations of students. Often, though, his inspiration to percussionists occurred as they observed him performing onstage. William Cahn, founding member of Nexus, stated, "It was my good luck to be a student in Philadelphia in the late 1950s into the mid-1960s when the Philadelphia Orchestra gave complimentary tickets to the public high schools. Michael Bookspan, being tall, lean, mustached, and quiet in nature, always exuded a sort of European mystique and elegance. He was a great player on all the orchestral percussion instruments, but I most remember his snare drum playing, which was always magnificent. Though I never studied with him formally, he was extremely friendly and courteous to me. He always had an encouraging word for me and my fellow students when we would meet him at the Academy of Music backstage door after concerts to give our compliments."
John Wyre, also a founding member of Nexus, first met Bookspan as a member of the All-Philadelphia High School Orchestra in the mid-1950s. He recalls, "Bookspan was a very natural player and person. First as my mentor, then as a professional colleague, he always had a joyful, professional curiosity about our music making. His teaching was never pretentious and he always offered the simplest solutions when asked."Jim Dallas, Principal Percussion of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, summarizes his learning experience by stating, "The greatest gift that Mr. Bookspan gave me was that of confidence. From my first lesson to the last time we played in orchestra together, this gentleman exuded a strength and confidence that was contagious. Playing side by side with him, you could feel yourself drawn into his energy and his rhythm."
According to Steve Weiss, Bookspan" had the rare characteristic of being able to make whomever he spoke with the total center of his attention. He became the listener, and as you spoke with him, you were the center of the universe." Carol Stumpf, Principal Timpanist of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, reflects that "He had an uncanny ability to make each of his students feel special, and as if they had a personal, special relationship with him."
The ability to make each person feel unique, along with a true love of life, was exhibited by Bookspan in everything he pursued, whether it was his career as a performer, or his love of boating, water-skiing, diving, the trampoline, motorcycles, or fast cars. In addition, he was an outspoken anti-war advocate, often leading parades with a draped drum in protest of war, or in support of amnesty for those who had refused to fight in Vietnam.
Adam Bookspan, a professional classical trumpet player, states that his father had "drive and zeal, a zest for life that he passed not only to me, but also to my sister, Jolie, my three half-brothers, and my cousin." Adam says that after assuming the Principal Percussion position, his father's goals shifted from personal ones to those of the section. "He wanted the section to become the best it could possibly be," Adam says.
Tony Orlando recalls that during his early years in the orchestra, Bookspan said to him, "If you hear anything I am doing that you think needs some correction, let me know." According to Orlando, "That is the way to run a section, and that is the kind of humble musical giant that Mickey will remain."One thing that all who heard Bookspan agree upon is that he had no peer in regard to his cymbal sound. Carol Stumpf sums it up best when she states, "I can't imagine anyone else making so much music from one cymbal note.
"Michael had such a profound and lasting influence on my life, not only as a musician and teacher, but as a person as well," Stumpf adds. "We define ourselves by our relationship in our community, to family, friends, mentors, what we do, how we live, and it is one of the proudest ways I define myself, saying 'I am a student of Michael Bookspan.'"
Of course, Bookspan had the most profound influence on his family. When asked to comment on her late husband's election to the PAS Hall of Fame, Shirley Bookspan knew how he would have felt. "Nothing would have pleased him as much as to have received this honor. He thought so highly of the Percussive Arts Society, as this was his organization; the organization devoted to his art--percussion."
Michael Bookspan was active for many years in the PAS, not only as a member of the society, but also as a member of the Board of Directors and as a clinician at several PASICs. We respectfully welcome him to the PAS Hall of Fame.