Berklee Performance Center

Berklee Performance Center

Naturally, since it’s owned and operated by the largest independent college of contemporary music on the planet, the Berklee Performance Center is among New England’s most venerated venues, a place where well-established artists are proud to appear regularly and up-and-coming ones dream of performing even once. And in addition to hosting of a smorgasbord of top talent for nearly 50 years – from jazz, folk, blues and country artists to rock, soul, roots and pop ones – the BPC’s sublime acoustics and state-of-the-art lighting, multimedia and recording systems make it one of the most technically sophisticated halls in the world, an extraordinary fusion of artistic and engineering genius.

Opening, Building history

The BPC opened in 1976 at 136 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay, but the building itself has a much longer history, having opened as the 1,600-seat Fenway Theatre on December 20, 1915. Though built for the express purpose of showing silent films – “photoplays,” as they were known at the time – and hailed by the Boston Sunday Globe as Boston’s “newest and most up-to-date photoplay house” when it opened, the theatre also presented live music including pipe-organ concerts and touring singers, backed by its 20-piece in-house orchestra. On opening night, the feature film was The Iron Strain – A Story of Alaska starring Dustin Farnum as “Chuck Hemmingway,” a Boston Brahmin with a degree from Yale.

The Fenway Theatre was a popular movie house through the 1950s, but the rise of television led to a substantial decrease in theatre attendance. In 1959, its owners nearly converted it into a First National supermarket but continued showing films instead; in 1960, they added a bowling alley in the basement to maintain a sustainable revenue stream. In mid-1963, the Bryant and Stratton Commercial School acquired the theatre and the nearby Sherry Biltmore Hotel (at 150 Massachusetts Avenue), the latter of which had been badly damaged by a fire in March that year that killed four people.

From late 1963 until early 1972, the 375-student school hired bands to play concerts at the Fenway space and mixers at the Biltmore one. Most of the groups were from Boston or its suburbs – including The Mods, who opened for The Rolling Stones at Manning Bowl in 1966 – but Frank Zappa, Bob Seger and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band did shows at the Fenway space in 1971, the same year then-unknown Aerosmith began using it for rehearsals (about two years before Columbia released their debut album). In early 1972, T Rex, Badfinger, Little Feat, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Aerosmith and jazz artists including pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and clarinetist Michael White appeared.

Berklee acquisiton, Debut event, “Berklee’s stadium”

In mid-1972, Berklee College of Music bought the Fenway Theatre and Sherry Biltmore properties from Bryant and Stratton Commercial School, converting the former into the BPC and the latter into the college’s largest on-campus residence hall. After nearly four years of floor-to-ceiling renovations – which reduced the seating capacity from 1,600 to its current 1,227 – the BPC opened on April 5, 1976, with a performance of  “Jazz 1776-1976,” written by faculty composer Tony Teixeira. At the opening ceremony, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis called the hall “an outstanding contribution to the cultural resources of the city and state.”

While Berklee uses the BPC primarily for student and faculty performances and other school events (including the college’s commencement concerts until 2004), it’s hosted several thousand shows by artists who aren’t associated with Berklee, which has increased the venue’s name recognition exponentially. “The Performance Center is Berklee’s stadium,” said Rob Rose, the college’s vice president for special programs, in 2016. “It’s played a huge role in the history of the college. I’ve seen many tourists posing for pictures by the front entrance.”

1970s, 1980s notable appearances

From its opening, the BPC has presented a broad spectrum of artists across multiple genres, starting in late 1976 with concerts by jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, folk/bluegrass/country singer-songwriter David Bromberg, jazz saxophonist John Klemmer, acoustic blues/swing singer-songwriter Papa John Kolstad, jazz guitarists Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie, British folk rockers Steeleye Span and pop megastar Leo Sayer. The next few years featured acts as varied as Ray Charles, Talking Heads, Weather Report, Pat Metheny Group, Warren Zevon, Gary Burton, Squeeze, Chuck Mangione, Chick Corea, Leo Kottke, Joe Jackon, The Brecker Brothers, George Benson, Roy Buchanan, Gato Garbieri, Freddy Hubbard, Skakti, The B-52s and Jonathan Richman.

In the early ’80, blues legends Muddy Waters and B.B. King took the BPC stage along with younger blues great George Thorogood and rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Roy Orbison. Other acts included The Temptations, Tony Bennett, Pat Benatar, Dire Straits, Mike Oldfield, Count Basie & His Orchestra, John McLaughlin, Stephanie Mills, Grover Washington, Jr., Laurie Anderson, Steve Smith & Vital Information, Dixie Dregs, Randy Newman, Herbie Hancock, The Roches, Jaco Pastorius and Andreas Vollenweider.

From the mid-‘80s to the end of the decade, the roster maintained its diversity with shows by Leonard Cohen, Fairport Convention, Sonny Rollins, Donovan, Richard Thompson, Al DiMeola, Billy Bragg, Larry Coryell, Betty Carter, Phillip Glass Ensemble, Lyle Mays, John Prine, Branford Marsalis, Bruce Cockburn, Renaissance, Ornette Coleman, Shadowfax, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Carla Bley, Cowboy Junkies, Joe Satriani, Los Lobos, Lyle Lovett, Michelle Shocked, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians, Clannad, k.d. lang, The Call and Harry Connick, Jr., among others.

1990s, 2000s notable appearances

In 1990, The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn made his BPC debut, as did Tori Amos, The Residents, Everything but the Girl, The Feelies, Hugh Masekela, Burning Spear and Tangerine Dream, to name a few. The rest of the decade saw appearances by acts including Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, The Jam’s Paul Weller, Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould, The Clancy Brothers, John Hiatt, Boz Scaggs, Tears for Fears, Rickie Lee Jones, Arlo Guthrie, Henry Rollins, Clint Black, Susanne Vega, The Greg Allman Band, Bryan Ferry and Céline Dion.

In the 2000s, the BPC has continued as the multi-genred showcase it’s always been. Between 2000 and 2009, Berklee graduates Susan Tedeschi and Paula Cole appeared as did New Englanders Patty Griffin and Ray LaMontagne and local favorite Aimee Mann, who attended Berklee but left halfway through her sophomore year. Others included Chuck Berry, Steve Winwood, Ray Davies, Art Garfunkel, Odetta, Joan Armatrading, Emmylou Harris, Lindsay Buckingham, Earth, Wind & Fire, Alice Cooper, Bruce Hornsby, Keb’ Mo’, King Crimson, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, The Wiggles, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Wayne Shorter, The Waterboys, Joshua Redman Elastic Band, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, KISS’s Ace Frehley, Sigur Rós, Dave Brubeck, David Byrne, Jonatha Brooke, George Winston, Neko Case, Jefferson Starship, Patty Larkin, Aaron Neville, Yngwie Malmsteen, Thomas Dolby, Steve Vai and Stanley Clarke.

Among the acts the BPC has hosted since 2010 are Pete Townshend, Todd Rundgren, Patti Smith, Mavis Staples, Graham Nash, Sérgio Mendes, Lucinda Williams, Bryan Adams, Ron Carter, Harry Belafonte, J Mascis, Ani DiFranco, Jack DeJohnette, Elvis Costello, Burton Cummings, Killswitch Engage, Dweezil Zappa, Snarky Puppy, Yellowjackets, The Soweto Gospel Choir, Kansas, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Loudon Wainwright III, Molly Tuttle and Rosanne Cash.

Notable recordings, Other events

Given the recording quality that its association with Berklee provides, the BPC is an ideal spot for cutting live albums and a number of artists have done so at the venue including Talking Heads, Thomas Dolby, Chick Corea, Bill Frisell, Sonny Rollins, King Crimson, Paco de Lucia, Makoto Ozone, Stephane Grapelli, Mike Oldfield, Joe Jackson, Ralph Towner & John Abercrombie, Cowboy Junkies, The Fringe, John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension, The Dregs, Pat Martino and The B-52s. Aside from music, many popular comedians have performed at the BPC over the decades, among them Joan Rivers, Bill Maher, Louis C.K., Sandra Bernhard, Patton Oswalt, Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis, Margaret Cho and Fred Armisen.

Along with presenting concerts by non-Berklee artists, the BPC hosts a variety of student events such as Singers Showcase, which began in 1983, the faculty concert Fall Together, which began in 1985, and the annual performance by the Jazz Composition Department. Since 2006, it’s been home to the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival and since 2012 it’s hosted Berklee’s annual Signature Music Series event, which has paired celebrated pros such as Don Was, Terri Lyne Carrington and Gary Burton with student ensembles to perform jazz, Celtic, R&B, funk, Middle Eastern and other genres. From 2006 until 2016, the BPC hosted NPR’s live broadcasts on New Year’s Eve.

Work-study stage crew program

Besides being used as a performance hall for musicians, the BPC has provided thousands of Berklee students with experience as recording, videotaping and lighting techs, stagehands, ushers and box-office personnel in preparation for careers in concert production through its ever-popular work-study stage crew program. Participants learn behind-the-scenes elements that are impossible to glean from classroom study while working with touring artists, technical teams, promotors and agents. “I’ve been told scores of times that the work-study stage crew position is the best job on campus,” said Brad Berger, the BPC’s director of production, in 2016. “Some students have said that it was the best part of their Berklee education.”

Among Berger’s former crew members are Eric Marchwinski, who went on to be the lighting programmer for Katy Perry, Usher and The Rolling Stones; Mike Marchetti, who worked as the New England production director for event promotion company Live Nation; Warren Willis, who became a stage technician for singer-songwriter-actor Demi Lovato and rockers Linkin Park; and Josh Monds and Bryson Camper, who were hired as production managers for Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha (in Qatar).

Building Berklee’s diversity, vibrancy, visibility

Asked how hosting concerts by artists from outside the Berklee community has benefitted the school, its students and its faculty, Senior Director of Concert Operations Cathy Horn said they’ve brought widespread, positive recognition to the institution, which has boosted the popularity of the student and faculty events. “The pro shows contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of the event schedule,” she said in 2016. “Whether brought in by a promoter or the college, pro shows bring name artists to Berklee’s campus. That, in turn, brings the public here, increasing the visibility of the college and helping us build an audience for our college events.”

(by D.S. Monahan)

Published On: February 16, 2024