An Epic Weekend
The May 9 and 10 commencement weekend was one for the record books. This year’s honorees included megahit R&B songwriter Valerie Simpson, Led Zeppelin founder and guitar icon Jimmy Page, jazz piano master Geri Allen, and celebrated music educator Thara Memory. From start to finish, it was an epic weekend, with great music and words of encouragement from the honorees.
The concert tribute to the honored guests on Friday exceeded all expectations. The show began with an instrumental overture blending snippets of the Led Zeppelin songs “Stairway to Heaven” and “Fool in the Rain” before launching into a program of 31 selections recorded by the honorees.
The arrangements written by the faculty members Ken Zambello, Tom Stein, Winston Maccow with vocal arrangements by Donna McElroy, as well as those by student arrangers Giorgi Mikadze, Inna Dudukina, Henry Castro, Gideon Lim, and Irma Seleman, ranged from faithful renditions of the originals to brilliant re-imaginings of the best-known tunes.
Titles by Valerie Simpson and her late husband, Nick Ashford—including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “The Boss,” and “Is It Still Good to Ya”—were interspersed with jazz works by Allen and numerous Page/Led Zeppelin classics. Berklee’s Rainbow Band played Thara Memory’s big-band compositions “Blues for Warren” and “Black Spaniard” as Memory sat on a stool onstage nodding in approval for the group’s tight ensemble work and virtuosic soloists.
Allen played piano on her tunes “LBW’s House” and “Our Lady.” She invited professor Terri Lyne Carrington, who has worked extensively with Allen, to sit in on drums for “Our Lady.” The number also featured the absolutely astonishing tap dancing of Maurice Chestnut, who tapped out the complex rhythms of the tune’s concerted passages and offered his own super-rhythmic improvisations.
Page’s music was well represented. Themes from “Stairway to Heaven,” functioning as a leitmotif for Page, showed up four times—including in the overture and in a surprising re-harmonization under the first verse of Simpson’s “Solid as a Rock.” Professor Dave Fiuczynski, playing double-neck guitar, led students from his Planet MicroJam Institute in an exotic set of variations on Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Yazhi Guo set the vibe playing an intro on a Tibetan singing bowl. He later soloed on traditional Asian woodwind instruments complementing solos by Fiuczynski (fretless guitar), Layth Al-Rubaye (violin), and Mikadze (keyboards).
A six-song Zeppelin guitar medley gave Maddie Rice, Sebastian Fernandez, and Vinny da Silva a chance to burn through Page’s riffs on “How Many More Times,” “Heartbreaker,” “Dazed and Confused,” and others. A duo-acoustic-guitar breakdown in the middle featured Marton Bisits and Evan Galante playing “Bron-Yr-Aur.”
Simpson’s musical contributions were duly celebrated with 11 tunes from her vast catalog. Among the highlights was a medley of three duets she and Ashford penned for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Student vocal pairs Brionne Wright and Sam Fischer, Tevin Price and Chanel Valme, and Natalia Sulca and Tre’von Griffith tugged heartstrings with “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” respectively. Simpson took the stage for “I’m Every Woman,” and immediately had audience members dancing in the aisles. She invited Allen and Carrington to join her for “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
The energy peaked during a final Zeppelin medley of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Over the Hills and Far Away.” The familiar introduction of “Stairway” was played by harp and piano under lush strings and a recorder countermelody. Vocalists Charlie Puth, Dorian Maverick, Jana Sustersic, Brooke Stephenson, David Vives, and Felipe Campos seemed to channel Robert Plant, and Fernandez brought the house down with his expert rendering of Page’s most famous guitar solo.
The 33 student vocalists and 78 instrumentalists returned to the stage for the encore, Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.”
The next morning, the honorees and college faculty and administrators joined the 900 grads and their families for the commencement exercises. President Roger Brown told the grads, “Remember, don’t lose your head when you find a modicum of success, and don’t lose heart when you stumble. You are strong, talented, and prepared. I cannot wait to follow your careers and track your many accomplishments.”
After receiving their degrees from Brown, each of the honorees commented on the concert and shared optimistic sentiments. Jimmy Page said, “Music has such power across so many avenues. [You’re] in a position to do the thing you’re best at—which is making music and bringing joy and pleasure to other people. It can’t be much better than that. I wish to pass that on to all of you. Congratulations with your degrees, and lots of success in the future.”
Thara Memory spoke to the grads about rehearsing. “Rehearsal every day is the answer,” he said. “If you rehearse every day, you’ll have nothing to worry about. Rehearse whether you’re sick, happy, got a lot of money, or whatever—just keep rehearsing.”
“This is such a joyous day,” Simpson said. “I am so over the moon for each and every one of you. The music last night filled me up to such a degree that I couldn’t sleep! You stirred me up.” She then told the grads, “Give it your all. Give it everything. You never know who’s watching, who’s going to be listening. I am so proud of you. Your future is so bright.”
“What we do is a privilege; music is so much more than a job,” Allen said. “You are getting a chance to do what you love. And it is that love for your art that will sustain you through the unexpected twists and turns that will come. Always remember the passion you’ve discovered behind every note, tone, and silence.”