The Journey Commences for Class of 2009

  Smokey Robinson receives the honorary degree from President Roger H. Brown. Robinson served as the commencement speaker.
  Photos by Phil Farnsworth
  From the left: Honorees George Massenburg, Juan Luis Guerra, Linda Ronstadt, and Smokey Robinson applaud the class of 2009.
  Tania Jones and Orlando Dixon sing Smokey Robinson's "Crusin.'"
  Juan Luis Guerra sits in on his song "La Bilirrubina."

For the 55 instrumentalists, 39 vocalists, and thousands of audience members assembled at Boston University's Agganis Arena for Berklee's commencement concert on May 8, anticipation was high. The event kicked off the commencement weekend and this year's Grammy-winning superstar commencement honorees (vocalist Linda Ronstadt, r&b singer/songwriter Smokey Robinson, Latin music singer/songwriter Juan Luis Guerra, and producer/engineer George Massenburg) were in the audience.

The young musicians presented a musically impressive and stylistically diverse program that included standards, r&b, rock, folk, and Caribbean music selections. Concert producer Rob Rose and a team that included Ken Zambello, Donna McElroy, Tom Stein, Rebecca Cline, Winston Maccow, Hanna Barakat, and Elizabeth Dawe staged a show with many musical high notes.

Among the evening's great moments was a duet rendition of "Blue Bayou" by Lindsey Blount and Robbie Fitzsimmons, the first of six songs representing Linda Ronstadt's catalog. Equally notable was vocalist Aubrey Logan's sensitive reading of Gershwin's "Someone to Watch over Me" (recorded by Ronstadt with George Massenburg engineering). Ronstadt's smash hit "You're No Good" began with an alluring string intro penned by Zambello before vocalist Merrily James rendered the tune with the perfect measure of youthful angst.

Five high-energy merengue and salsa tunes as well as the poignant "Bachata Rosa" celebrated Guerra's contributions to Caribbean music. Students from the ensembles led by Assistant Professor Rebecca Cline had arranged all the Guerra selections. Vocalist Romulo Lander sang "El Niagara en Bicicleta" above razor-sharp horn lines and an arsenal of percussion instruments, including the güiro from Guerra's native Dominican Republic. For his hit "La Bilirrubina," Guerra joined the players onstage, thrilling the musicians and audience alike.

From Smokey Robinson's vast output (he has cowritten about 4,000 songs), megahits such as "I Second That Emotion," "The Tracks of My Tears," "The Tears of a Clown," and "Shop Around," resonated especially well with the baby-boomer parents of grads and singers Tara Keith, Ashley Rodriguez, Grace and Phillip Ferrell, and others who performed them.

Musical twists came first with a Celtic-infused medley of Ronstadt's "Different Drum" and Robinson's "Going to a Go-Go" that was played, sung, and step-danced by the string players of the Folk Arts Quartet. As well, "Those Memories of You" (engineered by George Massenburg for Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris), hinted at Scandinavian influences with Mariel Vandersteel's Norwegian Hardanger fiddle stylings and Bronwyn Bird's Swedish nyckelharpa playing.

The next morning, 850 graduates and their families returned to Agganis Arena for the formal graduation ceremony. Berklee President Roger H. Brown presented honorees their doctor of music degrees and Robinson delivered the commencement address.

In his remarks, Robinson stressed the importance of staying humble while pursuing a music career. "Show business is a very fickle life," Robinson told the grads. "You're up today; you're down tomorrow. You're in today; you're out tomorrow. It's a life of peaks and valleys. Let your valleys inspire you to get to the next peak. And if you have a lot of peaks in a row, don't take yourself so seriously that you think that you're it. You're blessed, you're getting a chance to do something that you love and earn a living at it. I say Godspeed to all of you."

In accepting her honorary doctorate, Ronstadt spoke of her appreciation for a Berklee education. "The first time I visited Berklee, I felt like I had tumbled into Hogwarts," she observed. "I think the reason for that is because the most important function that music performs for us is transcendence. And transcendence is the truest meaning of magic."

Upon receiving his honorary degree, Guerra thanked President Brown, Berklee faculty members, and students and dedicated the moment to his wife, children, and his Dominican friends in attendance, who cheered enthusiastically. He added, "I would also like to give praise and love to Jesus, my Lord and savior, knowing that all my inspiration comes from him."

Massenburg began his acceptance remarks by addressing the graduates as his new colleagues. He welcomed them to the music business with a caveat. "The record business has been eaten, its young have been eaten, and there is a great place for you out there," he said. "We're looking for you to help us rebuild it. There's a great deal of work that we all have to do together."

Of the more than 850 graduates, 242 were women. International students from 37 different countries made up 13 percent of the graduating class, and domestic students from 44 American states accounted for the remaining 87 percent. The top three majors were professional music, music business/management, and performance.