It was only two years after the end of the U.S. Civil War when German-born violinist and composer Julius Eichberg founded the Boston Conservatory and began what would become a revolutionary new form of performing arts education in the country.
Eichberg was truly progressive; he established the first all-female professional string quartet and produced new works performed by the first African-American opera company in the country. At the time, Eichberg’s ideologies were considered radical, but he strategically fused his principles into the DNA of the Boston Conservatory, laying the framework for nearly 150 years of innovation and excellence.
Today, the Conservatory continues to be a thought leader in performing arts education. Through its impressive portfolio of new works, contemporary performances and cutting-edge degree programs, the school continues to prove that conservatory-level training provides the strongest foundation for innovation in the arts.
A Step Ahead
In the dance division, contemporary is the name of the game. The school’s B.F.A. in contemporary dance performance was recently named “best in the nation” by OnStage.com, thanks largely to Dean of Dance Cathy Young’s forward-thinking curriculum and artistic programming.
Young’s philosophy is simple: teach through empowering. “Our goal is to develop the next generation of artistic leaders and game changers: dancers, choreographers and teachers who will shape the future of the field,” Young explains. “In order to do this, we expose our students to a wide range of work, we encourage them to explore, and we empower them to speak in their own unique voices.”
In the classroom, instructors not only train students on performance technique, but also encourage dancers to find their own artistic voices with the aim of inspiring the next generation of choreographers. That is why the annual WINTERWORKS and senior dance concerts, presented in the spring semester, exclusively feature new creations by students and alumni.
Throughout the year, students also collaborate with renowned guest artists on restagings of challenging masterworks and the creation of entirely original works. These performances are presented in the fall and spring on the mainstage, giving students an incredible opportunity to explore and perform.
Expanding the Stage
The theater division is also on a mission. Known across the nation for its unparalleled musical theater program, the Conservatory is now expanding its expertise into the area of contemporary theater. On the academic front, that means introducing two new degree programs rarely found at the conservatory level: a B.F.A. in contemporary theater and a B.F.A. in multidisciplinary stage management*.
The contemporary theater program, which launched in fall 2015, is designed for students who are fueled by the desire to create cutting-edge theater for the modern audience. With a heavy focus on ensemble creation, students are expected to write, direct, design and produce original works.
For those interested strictly in behind-the-scenes work, the school’s new multidisciplinary stage management program allows students to stage manage all types of performances: theater, dance, opera, and concert music. This program has a forward-thinking view that stage managers must be as versatile as performers, with the ability to adapt to any genre and lead any production team.
The theater division’s bold performance lineup rounds out the division’s attention to contemporary theater with new stagings of The Threepenny Opera, Spring Awakening, and Urinetown, as well as Alice in War, a recent work by Boston playwright Steven Bogart that explores the first Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) through the lens of Alice in Wonderland.
“We train actors to embody any role, in any environment,” Theater Division Dean Neil Donohoe says. “Our new degree programs and upcoming performance season set the stage for a lot of diversity and artistic exploration.”
Music Without Boundaries
The music division has always incorporated contemporary work into its programming. In the fall, the school launched its first-ever degree program focused specifically on contemporary music performance. The M.M. is designed to expand and develop students’ capacities to work independently and collaboratively in the area of contemporary art music created post-1950. It is intended for students who wish to be at the forefront of contemporary music creation and performance—and the Conservatory is the perfect environment for that.
In the 2014–2015 academic year, the music division alone presented an impressive 550 performances, including an astounding 260 new works composed by students, faculty and guest artists.
To better showcase the incredible volume of new material being created, former Music Division Dean Abra K. Bush recently revamped the school’s annual New Music Festival (NMF). The festival kicked off last year with ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) founder and new music guru Claire Chase (flute), and it continues this year with renowned soprano Tony Arnold.
Arnold was be the cornerstone for this year’s NMF in February 2016. A titan in the contemporary music world, she is one of the most recorded singers of this genre, with notable albums to her credit. Her sparkling and insightful performances of even the most daunting contemporary scores have garnered international praise and inspired collaborations with the most daring composers and instrumentalists on the world stage.
“Arnold is a tour-de-force of contemporary music,” says Bush. “All of those who have been working with her to plan the residency have experienced the electricity she brings to her projects. She is bold, dynamic, engaging, thoughtful and highly creative.”
Arnold’s residency, funded in part by the Kunkemueller Guest Artist Residency Program, will focus on creating new works with students in all disciplines, including composers, singers, instrumentalists, poets and actors. In addition, she will teach music history and composition and conduct the Boston Conservatory Contemporary Ensemble at the NMF.
Just the Beginning
Nearly 150 years after its founding, Eichberg’s educational principles and pioneering spirit are still fueling the Boston Conservatory. By evolving its degree programs to meet the needs of today’s students and fostering an environment conducive to the creation of new work, the Conservatory continues to embrace progress.
The school’s philosophy illustrates the vision perfectly: Keep one foot rooted in history in order to innovate with integrity.
As the Conservatory seeks new ways to honor Eichberg’s legacy and lead in the field of performing arts education, the possibilities are endless—and that is nothing short of thrilling.
"Our Contemporaries" first appeared in the WINTER 2015 issue of STAGES, the Conservatory's bi-annual magazine. The article appears in its original form.
*Note, the multidisciplinary stage management degree has been discontinued.