From Broadway to Berklee with Eric Stern

By 
Mike Keefe-Feldman
October 20, 2014
Berklee associate professor Eric Stern
Berklee associate professor Eric Stern
Conductor and associate professor Eric Stern
Conductor and associate professor Eric Stern
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson

On a recent Thursday afternoon, an orchestra of approximately 20 pieces gathers to rehearse the score to a new original musical, A Little Mischief, by Rene Pfister, director of Berklee’s Musical Theater Ensemble.

While Pfister works with the actors who will perform this contemporary nod to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Berklee Performance Center on November 18, the Berklee Ensemble Department’s Musical Theater Orchestra practices in hopes of delighting audiences with symphonic sounds from the pit. Soon, the two groups/courses will intersect for a sitzprobe—a meeting where the orchestra and the actor/vocalists unite their efforts to bring it all together—but first, each unit must learn its part.

Listen to a podcast about musical theater at Berklee.

On the orchestral side, the rehearsal is guided by Composition Department associate professor and veteran Broadway conductor Eric Stern. Stern energetically darts around the student musicians, listening closely to the ensemble as a whole at times and to individual players at others, all while gently instructing the student conductor to use his baton and body to provide the musicians with the guidance they need.

They practice a song from Pfister’s musical called “Hold the Sweet Jest Up,” and after just 30 minutes, the most difficult section of the piece has shifted from shaky and occasionally disjointed to a sweeping, sonorous beauty. Given such results, it’s not hard to see why Stern has been entrusted with music direction, music supervision, and/or conducting on approximately 20 Broadway musicals, such as Carousel, The Music Man, Showboat, Shrek, and The Will Rogers Follies. It's also easy to see that Stern's leap from the podium on Broadway to the podium in the classroom has been a gratifying one.

Conducting Fun

Stern’s work experience goes well beyond Broadway. He has remained active in the world of classical music, appearing as a guest conductor for renowned orchestras all over the world, from local work with Audra McDonald and the Boston Pops to more far-flung engagements, such as a semi-regular guest conductorship with the National Orchestra of Wales. He has worked on Grammy-winning albums and special TV programs for PBS and the BBC, and he has won an Emmy as well as three Gramophone Awards in the U.K. Since joining the faculty of Berklee in 2012, one of his focal points has been instructing students in conducting for popular formats—training that he knows might be looked down upon at some conservatories but is in demand on Broadway.

“There is a portion of stick technique that is more specifically needed and appropriate for music that has popular flavor as opposed to Vivaldi or Brahms, but a lot of people who do this don’t know how to get pop sensibilities out of a stick,” Stern says. “To get a band to swing with a stick is an unusual occupation; it’s not commonly taught. So I thought, ‘How neat if someone could teach that!’ I wanted to become the teacher that I always wanted to have but never did.’”

Stern teaches courses such as Advanced Conducting Techniques for the Theater and Musical Direction for the Theater, while also coaching theater vocalists and teaching straight conducting—the latter a role in which Stern savors “showing Ravel and Stravinsky to metal heads and jazzers.”

For the Berklee student with Broadway dreams, Stern is a wealth of knowledge. He can speak from experience as to both the thrills and the grueling demands of a Broadway career. Of the latter, he notes that it takes an intense commitment to do the same show eight times per week for a year or more. But, Stern says, “When you run into trouble, what I always say to myself is, ‘My Aunt Rosie is in the fourth row. What would Aunt Rosie want to see?’” Even the same show each night is fun, says Stern, when the audience is responding favorably.

“As a conductor, what you’re really doing is telling a story with your stick,” says Stern. “If it’s a good enough story, and if the audience likes the ride, then it’s so much fun to take them on it. And then you buckle in the next group on the roller coaster and say, ‘Here we go,’ and you crank it up the hill. There’s just fun in that.”

The Happy Professor

After a long run on Broadway, Stern seems to be exactly where he wants to be now. Having spent much of his life feeling like a jazz and pop guy when surrounded by classical peers—and, conversely, like a classical guy when surrounded by jazz and pop peers—it seems Berklee’s dedication to quality music across genres has provided the right home for Stern: one that is less concerned with rigid labels and more interested in encouraging the versatility that has afforded him such a successful career.

Stern may not be able to conduct Broadway shows while working at Berklee, but he is still active in arranging, in shepherding new projects along, and in coaching people. This latter role—teaching—is what ignites Stern these days.

“Being a musician means you are constantly teaching in some way,” Stern says. “It’s like breathing for us. So to get in a classroom and teach conducting—I’ve always wanted to do this. And after the first four months here, my wife turned to me one day and said, ‘You’re happier than I’ve ever seen you.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. I am.’”

It shows.