VALENCIA,Spain — Berklee College of Music launched its first master’s degree program Monday far from Massachusetts Avenue, in sunny Spain, to be exact, cradle of Flamenco fusion and a melting pot of Latin American, European, and North African sounds.
The master’s program has attracted 75 students from 25 countries to an avant-garde campus in Valencia, a city better known for its paella and beaches than its brass sections, but one that is home to 500 symphonic bands and where, according to Berklee president Roger Brown, the passion for trumpets and trombones surpasses soccer fans’ fervor. That musical tradition, coupled with strong support from local authorities, lured Berklee to Spain’s third largest city, on its southeastern coast, on the Mediterranean.
Berklee’s master’s degree candidates join 34 undergraduate students who are spending a semester abroad studying Mediterranean music and the international music business. The undergraduate program was launched in the spring.
The students perform, compose, and study music management in Valencia’s landmark Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, a ceramic-clad opera house built by the Gaudí-inspired Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Berklee spent $8 million to restructure a 3,600-square-
meter annex adjoining the Palau and outfit it with state-of-the-art recording studios, production suites, rehearsal rooms, and technical labs for film, television, and video-game scoring.
The college has also recruited faculty and visiting artists from around the world, including Cuban bassist Alain Pérez, Argentine drummer Mariano Steimberg, and Moroccan violinist Faiçal Kourrich. Many of the musicians hail from Spain, including singer-songwriter Soledad Giménez and Flamenco guitarist Antonio Sánchez, who performed in April at the Boston Opera House with Flamenco fusion icon Paco de Lucía.
“Berklee is primed for a real creative explosion,” Brian Cole, academic dean of Berklee Valencia, said while admiring the view of the opera house. “The students say they’ve never felt so inspired.”
Part of that inspiration comes from the campus itself. The opera house looks like a sleek white ship glistening amid turquoise reflecting pools. It sits at one end of Calatrava’s futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, which has a science museum that resembles a dinosaur skeleton and an IMAX theater in the shape of an eyeball.
“They are studying inside a piece of art,” said Latin jazz artist Victor Mendoza, director of performance for Berklee Valencia. “When I walk in, I see the students looking into the water of the reflecting pools in deep meditation, and then they sit for hours playing and composing.”
The idea to open a campus in Spain was first hatched about seven years ago by Brown and two Berklee trustees, Luis Alvarez and Ann Kreis. Saxophonist Larry Monroe, former director of the school’s Mediterranean Music Institute, was also a strong supporter.
Berklee had received dozens of offers from around the world to establish a campus abroad, but it chose Spain because of its unique music history and lifestyle, said Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of Berklee Valencia. Seven hundred years of Muslim rule by the Moors, who coexisted relatively peacefully for centuries with Jews and Christians, have left their trace in the yearning sounds of Flamenco, as well as much of Spanish culture. Latin rhythms — salsa, samba, cumbia, tango — echo strongly here today thanks to Spain’s strong ties with its former colonies. Spain is also imbued with Mediterranean sounds.
“It’s the only place that lets you connect to so many musical cultures at once,” Cisneros said.
Spain, moreover, is the top destination of European students who receive the prestigious Erasmus study abroad grants, Cisneros said. It is, after all, not a bad place to study. Since the dictator Francisco Franco’s death, Spain has teemed with creativity, from its molecular gastronomy to its cutting-edge architecture. The weather’s good. The food’s good. The people like fiestas.
Valencia itself bursts with brass. Every town in the region has at least one symphonic band, according to Cisneros, and 200,000 people are involved in the region’s traditional symphonic band movement. “You see grandfathers, fathers, and sons all playing in the same band,” he said. “Music is part of the culture.”
At first, Berklee had planned to occupy a building slated for construction by a Spanish artists’ guild, but then the worldwide economic recession hit, and Spain’s real estate bubble burst. Construction stalled. In 2010, Berklee gave up on the project and broke its lease agreement with the guild.
That’s when the Valencia government stepped in. It offered to lease a glass-walled annex at Calatrava’s Palau for 120,000 euros a year, an inexpensive deal to offset Berklee’s $8 million investment, Cisneros said. The government also helped Berklee Valencia get European Union accreditation.
The college was thrilled with the deal. “It was as if some school wanted to come to Boston and the city said, ‘Why don’t you move into Symphony Hall,’ ” Brown said.
In the next few years, the Calatrava campus is expected to accommodate as many as 350 students, a mix of master’s degree candidates, undergraduates, and the participants of short summer programs and workshops. Berklee will also seek opportunities for students to collaborate with the opera house musicians.
The Valencia campus adds a new dimension to Berklee’s expansion streak at home, which includes a $65 million plan to erect a 16-story building on Massachusetts Avenue with student apartments, a dining hall, and recording studios.
The master’s program is Berklee’s latest effort to strengthen its international presence. It has established an Institute for Mediterranean Music, a global network of contemporary music schools, and an international career center.
“Berklee is evolving to meet the needs of its students with an education that is relative to today’s music world,” said Cole, the academic dean. “The world is getting smaller and smaller. You don’t have to be based in LA; you don’t have to be based in New York. You can be based in Middle America or Valencia, send something and sync.”
The future, Berklee administrators believe, belongs to music that emerges from a melting pot , like the Berklee Valencia student body.
“The ambience here is absolutely great,” said Ganavya Doraiswamy of Miami, who spent seven years studying an extinct instrument, the Jaltarang, in southern India with her grandmother.
The instrument is made with china cups with water, she said. “My grandma is the last actual performer left, but Berklee knows how to adapt music to help it survive.”
“On my first night here, my roommates and I had a fusion gig with Irish folk music, traditional Indian music, and my flute,” said Erin Johnson from Chicago. “It was incredible.”
Another student, vocalist Faustina Abad of Israel, wants to experiment with Middle Eastern music and flamenco. “I usually sing jazz and R&B, but here it seems more appropriate to go back to my roots,” she said. At the inaugural concert on Monday, Abad sang an ancient Spanish Jewish song in Ladino, accompanied by a Syrian vocalist and an Egyptian percussionist. “Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and the Arabs were expelled, too, and now we kind of came back together here,” she said.
Not far from Abad, a group of American students slapped the back of Cuban pianist Isaac Delgado, son of the Cuban salsa star by the same name. “You inspire me, dude!’’ said one student. “I can’t wait to see you around.”
Ricky Lucchese, a trombone and guitar player from California, was impressed by how well his international classmates are getting along. “We may not be able to speak our ideas to each other because of the language barriers,” he said, “but music is the universal language.”
Dale Fuchs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.