Boston Conservatory Marks 150 Years

On May 9, members of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee community packed Boston’s Symphony Hall for a gala celebration of the conservatory’s 150th anniversary. There is much to celebrate. Founded just two years after the end of the Civil War, the conservatory’s history lists a number or firsts. To name a few, it was the first conservatory in America to admit African Americans and women. It established the country’s first grand opera department in 1920. The institution was first to offer degrees in music education in 1940, and it was the first to establish an innovative dance division providing instruction in ballet and modern dance in 1943.

Award-winning Scottish-American actor, singer, and performer Alan Cumming served as the evening’s master of ceremonies and introduced program segments. The program highlighted the conservatory’s three divisions: music, dance, and theater. Faculty conductor Bruce Hangen led the orchestra in the opener, the Johann Strauss II chestnut “The Blue Danube,” first performed in 1867, the year that the conservatory opened its doors. Also in this segment were a rapturous reading of Jules Massenet’s “Meditation de Thaïs” by faculty violinist Markus Placci and pianist Ya-Fei Chuang, an aria from Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress performed by soprano Vanessa Becerra and the orchestra, and four faculty members playing the energetic Rondo from Piano Quartet No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.

The dance division offered works in diverse styles. Students Marquis Floyd and Mariana Zschoerper represented ballet elegantly with the “Pas de Deux” from Ludwig Minkus’s Don Quixote. An ensemble of 18 students danced expressively to a portion of Max Richter’s electronic piece, Deep. Faculty member Kurt Douglas was the solo dancer in Franz Schubert’s 19th century lied “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” with 20th century choreography by José Limon.

Members of the musical theater class of 2020 sang and danced to “Trolley Song” from Meet Me in Saint Louis, and “Brand New Me” from the musical 13, with accompaniment from a trio of piano, electric bass, and drums. Alumna Alysha Umphress, who has had roles in top Broadway shows, sang “Boy Next Door” from Meet Me in Saint Louis.

Cumming closed the program by singing a mashup of the pop songs “The Edge of Glory,” “Someone Like You,” and “Firework” plus an original song, “Last Day on Earth,” with vocal backing from the musical theater class of 2017.

Roger Brown then took the podium to introduce retiring conservatory president Richard Ortner, the institution’s eighth president who has held the post for the past 18 years. Brown praised Ortner for his “thoughtful, visionary, and courageous leadership.” Ortner in turn presented Cumming with an honorary doctor of music degree.

“We call these honorary degrees,” Ortner said, “but the earning takes place out in the wide world. We all know that music, theater, and dance are alchemy, and the best practitioners of these arts are wizards of a very high order. Alan is surely one of those wizards.” Ortner listed many of Cumming’s achievements and honors, including his being named an officer of the British Empire. “But one thing is conspicuously lacking,” Ortner added: “a degree from Boston Conservatory at Berklee. We’ll remedy that now and bestow upon you the degree of doctor of arts honors causa.”

In his acceptance remarks, Cumming said, “As someone who comes from a conservatory background myself, I really appreciate this honor. I understand the value of this kind of education. I’m really heartened by the way this institution encourages others to go out into the field and engage with others and tell stories.” Cumming also congratulated Ortner on his retirement, stating, “Your presence will be greatly missed and your legacy long lasting.” The evening was topped off with the showing of a video portraying many highlights from Ortner’s presidency as the full orchestra and chorus performed Stephen Sondheim’s uplifting number “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George.

Among Ortner’s many achievements as president were his push for the conservatory to become a leader in the field of special-needs music teacher training and creating unique programs focused on music and autism. He also secured funds to renovate the conservatory’s Hemenway Street theater, and continued with the construction a 20,000-square-foot studio building on Ipswich Street, raising a total of more than $50 million dollars. Alluding to the merger of Boston Conservatory with Berklee, Roger Brown stated, “Together, we’re going to make the next 150 years even better than the last.”