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Opening Day: Berklee Opens with Inspiration

 
  Pianist/musical director Rob Lewis '94 (left) received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from President Roger H. Brown.
  Photos by Phil Farnsworth

The temperature said summer, but on September 7, the Berklee community revved up for fall with the college's second annual opening day event, which was titled "Nourishing Our Spirit." At a faculty and staff breakfast at the Westin Copley Place, Jazz Composition Professor Greg Hopkins eulogized the late Herb Pomeroy as an artist who started jazz education as we know it in America today. "Berklee was like the Emerald City, and Herb was the Wizard," Hopkins said. "Now we're going to change the world, as he did."

It was the kickoff to a day of inspiration. President Roger H. Brown said the new school year felt like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon: "You can feel that something dramatic is just over that precipice," he said. Brown shared a list of accomplishments from last year: auditioning and interviewing every entering student, completing the college's first-ever curriculum review, increasing the diversity of the entering class, improving first-year advising, preparing a new campus expansion plan, and readying Café 939, Berklee's new coffeehouse.

As they described their stories of desire and determination to attend Berklee, two student speakers captured the crowd. In her soft Texas drawl, incoming student and singer/songwriter Emily Elbert described her path to Berklee. The deal was sealed when Elbert attended the Five-Week Summer Performance Program. "It was a peak experience in my life," she said. "Berklee was a place that could harbor my dreams."

 
The Bloco AfroBrazil percussion ensemble played at a lunchtime barbeque and at the opening of the 2007 convocation exercises in the Berklee Performance Center.  

The language of Zimbabwe has a single word for wind, spirit, mind, the Holy Spirit, ghost, and breath, said Kundayi Musinami, who is a double major in the MP&E and Music/Business Management departments. Musinami came to the United States with only $12 and the drive to attend Berklee. After some of his family members died, Berklee buoyed him up. Students "need you to reach out," he told faculty and staff. "May you find the courage to constantly look inward and find the best of yourself to give." To aid that goal, President Brown announced the new Newbury Comics Faculty Fellowship to enhance faculty teaching skills through innovative projects.

Berklee staff member Rob Hochschild spoke about the boost he got to his own spirit from participating in a June Berklee-sponsored trip to build houses in the Musicians' Village neighborhood in New Orleans. "We worked with people from around the world doing what we could to bring the city back a bit," he said. The trip brought reminded him of the relevance of Berklee's mission. "Every day we help people give music to other people," Hochschild said.

Keynote speaker and past Berklee honorary doctorate recipient Patrice Rushen knows something about using music to uplift others. Rushen, who received the Presidential Tribute Award that morning, exhorted faculty and staff at the Berklee Performance Center to "rekindle the joy" and "motivate [students] with our enthusiasm." She bracketed her speech with solo piano performances.

 
  Pianist/composer Patrice Rushen answered questions posed by Visiting Professor Terri Lyne Carrington

In an onstage interview with percussion professor Terri Lyne Carrington, Rushen emphasized the importance of teachers' support for a range of musical interests. Whether she brought in Bach or Stevie Wonder, she said, her teacher "actively valued each component and helped me relate each to the other." Such open-mindedness led Rushen to achievements in the jazz, classical, and pop worlds. In response to a question from faculty member Prince Charles Alexander about whether musicians must choose between commercial success and art, Rushen said, "You can be the great musician who has a hit record," she said. "You can be studied and have feeling."

That evening, the community reconvened at the Berklee Performance Center. The festivities began with a performance by percussion ensemble Bloco AfroBrazil. Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Lawrence Bethune told the class, "Hold on to your dreams and your passion." Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Lawrence Simpson said, "You are at the center of everything we do, and we are committed to your success."

President Brown asked the freshmen, "If you could improve one percent each day, after four years, how much better would you be?" The answer: "2,078,007.24 times better than when you got here. So work hard, have fun, and get better every day." Brown then presented Berklee's Distinguished Alumnus Award to Rob Lewis '94, a pianist, producer, and musical director who has worked with Christina Aguilera, Toni Braxton, Babyface, and Patti LaBelle, among others. "Your dreams got you here to Berklee to get equipped for your journey," Lewis told the audience. "You'll have to work hard to get to where you want to be. Your journey should be just as good as the destination."

 
Grace Taylor sings Peabo Bryson's "Feel the Fire."  

After the stage cleared, a 22-piece student band kicked off with the funky instrumental "Into the Strutosphere." Among the highlights of the one-hour show were Grace Taylor's sultry and soulful vocals on Peabo Bryson's "Feel the Fire" and Kevin Ross's rendition of the Earth Wind & Fire chestnut "In the Stone."

The house lit up when Lewis came onstage to sit in on piano. He began with his solo piano composition "First Movement" and then joined the band on a pair of tunes made popular by Eric Benét and Eric Clapton, with whom Lewis has worked. The concert ended with singer Ashley Rodriguez's emotionally charged rendition of the Maroon 5 hit "This Love," which officially closed the opening day festivities and launched the new academic year.