Boston Conservatory at Berklee

Boston Conservatory at Berklee

Few cities can boast of being home to even one world-renowned music college or conservatory but Boston has three such famed institutions: Berklee College of MusicNew England Conservatory and Boston Conservatory at Berklee (BCB). While there is some overlap in their specialty areas, each is outstanding in its own right and they’ve all carved out a particular niche in the educational space.

Though BCB may not be quite as well known as the other two, it has a storied history and prestigious pedigree of which the founders, faculty and students can be proud. As testimony to its significance, when you open the Playbill for just about any Broadway or nationally touring musical production, chances are you’ll find a BCB alum listed as a cast member.

Founding, Equal-rights leader, 1920s revitalization

BCB was founded as Boston Conservatory in 1867 (the same year as New England Conservatory) by violinist/composter Julius Eichberg and has educated some of the world’s finest musicians, dancers and thespians. Trained in the European tradition, Eichberg believed that superior music education was only possible by building strong connections with students and that every one of them – regardless of gender or race – should have the opportunity to excel. An equal-rights leader from its inception, it was one of the first conservatories in the US to allow women and African-Americans to enroll at a time when they rarely had the chance to pursue formal musical education or consider classical music as a profession.

After several decades of success, the conservatory struggled in the early 20th century as enrollment decreased and finances suffered. In the 1920s, however, Boston Pops principal conductor Agide Jacchia helped to revitalize the school by expanding programs to include a department of grand opera and adding members of the Pops and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the faculty. In 1943, the conservatory introduced a program that focused on both ballet and modern dance, the first of its kind in any conservatory.

Berklee merger, Notable alumni

In 2016, Boston Conservatory merged with Berklee College of Music and officially became Boston Conservatory at Berklee, one of four entities under the Berklee umbrella (the others being Berklee Valencia, Berklee NYC and Berklee Online). Today, BCB offers fully accredited bachelor’s and master’s programs in dance, music and theater, with access to all of the resources and programs of the broader Berklee institution.

BCB alumni who’ve found success on Broadway include Constantine Maroulis, who graduated with a BFA in musical theater. He was a contestant on the fourth season of American Idol (which Carrie Underwood won), received a Tony nomination in 2009 for his leading role in the musical Rock of Ages and starred in a 2017 production of Evita at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts. “I think it’s safe to say that Boston is a mecca for the arts and an incredible place for young artists to thrive and compete,” he said in a 2017 interview with Dig Boston. “I like competition, so I wanted to train with people better than me. And I think that’s what I got to do in my time in Boston.”

Chloe Webb, who rose to fame with her spot-on, nails-on-the chalkboard portrayal of Sid Vicious’ ill-fated girlfriend Nancy Spungen in the 1986 film Sid & Nancy, attended the conservatory in the late ‘70s and Gerard Alessandrini, the creator and lyricist of Forbidden Broadway and Spamilton, graduated in 1976. Other noted alum include David Benoit (Les Miserables and Avenue Q), Hayley Podschun (Hairspray and Anything Goes) and Alysha Umphress (American Idiot and Bring It On, The Musical).

Katherine McPhee, an American Idol finalist and star of the NBC series Smash, spent three semesters at BCB. “I really learned a lot about the musical theater world and the craziness that goes on,” she told The Boston Globe in 2012. “There will be a lot of jokes that will go past people’s heads, but for those that are tapped into the theater, there will be a lot of fun things for them to tap into, the inside stuff.”

BCB graduates who’ve made a name for themselves in music include classical guitarist Lily Ashfar, Brazilian jazz guitarist Gustavo Assis-Brasil, classical crossover singer Geoff Sewell, bassist Slam Stewart (who played with Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Fats Waller, Art Tatum and other jazz legends in the ‘40s) and multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, who was a Boston Conservatory student in the late ‘40s.

As the popularity of a capella groups and music theatre majors has blossomed in recent years, largely thanks to the popularity of TV shows such as Glee, High School Musical and Pitch Perfect, it seems safe to say the BCB will have plenty of new students in the coming years. And there’s no doubt that the conservatory will continue to produce top-notch talent.

(by Lincoln Purdy, with additional information provided by Ben Pitt)

Published On: June 25, 2019