Boston Conservatory Musicians Perform on Symphonic Recording of David Bowie’s Final Album

January 24, 2020 Madison Spahn


It isn’t every day that student musicians are featured on a professional recording alongside an acclaimed soloist, but with the release of Bowie Cello Symphonic: Blackstar on January 10, several Boston Conservatory at Berklee students can claim this distinction. More than 20 Conservatory students, alumni, and faculty performed alongside avant-garde cellist Maya Beiser on the recording, a new symphonic arrangement of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, by arranger/conductor Evan Ziporyn.

The album is a product of an exciting collaboration that brought Boston Conservatory at Berklee students, alumni, and faculty on tour with Beiser, Ziporyn, and the Ambient Orchestra in performances of Bowie Symphonic: Blackstar. Released on the fourth anniversary of Bowie’s death, the recording features the entire Blackstar album in symphonic form, with Conservatory musicians heard on all eight tracks. Prior to the release, the first single, “Lazarus,” released on December 13, already boasted more than 20,000 Spotify streams and a spot on Apple Music’s Classical A-List.

Following Bowie’s death in 2016, Beiser’s desire to pay tribute to the cultural icon led her to interpret his music the best way she knew how—with her cello. Teaming up with her former Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble colleague Ziporyn, the two reimagined Blackstar as a symphonic work, with Beiser’s cello representing the solo vocals and the 30-piece Ambient Orchestra, specifically formed for the tribute project, providing the rest.

After the success of the project’s first performance in MIT’s Kresge Hall in 2017, requests for additional performances rushed in, taking Beiser, Ziporyn, and the Ambient Orchestra on tour worldwide. Last year, Conservatory musicians joined the orchestra on a cross-country tour, with stops in California, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, and Boston.

The majority of the Boston Conservatory performers on Bowie Cello Symphonic: Blackstar are recent graduates of the school’s contemporary classical music program. The program, which specializes in the music of living composers and contemporary chamber music, is one of only two programs of its kind at a conservatory in the United States. Although only five years old, the program has already garnered impressive accolades, including performing at the Boston New Music Festival Keynote Concert and at the 2018 New Music Gathering.

Faculty member Sarah Brady, who heads the program, is an accomplished flutist who frequently performs new works, including playing alongside her students and colleagues in the Bowie Symphonic: Blackstar project. Thrilled that the students had this unique opportunity to see the project through, she describes the journey as “a joyful music-making experience as well as a learning experience about being a professional on the road.” She adds that, "for many of them, it’s their first professional recording, and I’m sure the first of many.”

Conservatory musicians will join the Ambient Orchestra once again in a performance at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland on February 15. And Brady expects that such collaborations with musicians at the forefront of the contemporary classical field will continue for students in the contemporary classical music program. “Being on tour is the best way for these students to learn the business with real-life experience. Blackstar was such a successful project, and we are definitely looking forward to more partnerships with other artists and other institutions in the future.”

Bowie Cello Symphonic: Blackstar can be accessed on all major music streaming and download services. The following Boston Conservatory musicians are featured on the recording:

  • David Angelo, clarinet/bass clarinet (M.M. '18, clarinet)
  • Ben Baker, cello (M.M. '19, contemporary classical music)
  • Sarah Brady, piccolo/flute (faculty)
  • Justin Coyne, trombone (M.M. '19, trombone)
  • Maria d’Ambrosio, horn (B.M. '19, horn)
  • Gillian Dana, double bass (M.M. '20, double bass)
  • Ryan Fossier, horn (M.M. '15, composition)
  • Christopher Gunnell, percussion (M.M. '19, contemporary classical music)
  • Olivia Harris, cello (M.M. '19, contemporary classical music)
  • Roselyn Hobbs, viola (M.M. '19, contemporary classical music)
  • Christopher Janson, double bass (M.M. '19, P.S.C. '20, double bass)
  • Shannon Leigh, clarinet (M.M. '19, contemporary classical music)
  • Kevin Madison, keyboard (M.M. '19, contemporary classical music, P.S.C. '20, piano)
  • Alexis Mitchell, oboe (M.M. '20, oboe)
  • Alec Norkey, violin (G.P.D. '19, violin)
  • Daniel Reifsteck, percussion (M.M. '19, contemporary classical music, P.S.C. '20, percussion)
  • Caroline Shaffer, flute (M.M. '20, flute)
  • Nicholas Stevens, drumkit (M.M. '19, contemporary classical music)
  • Brian Stuligross, violin (M.M. '20, violin)
  • Brianna Tagliaferro, cello (M.M. '19, contemporary classical music)
  • Brian Voelz, trumpet (G.P.D. '20, trumpet)