By Suzanne Besser
Over the years, Brad Conner and Ben Sears have attracted hundreds of Beacon Hill followers who’ve been educated, entertained and engrossed in the Beacon Hill Seminar classes they’ve taught. Last weekend the creative duo went one step further and enthralled their students and other neighbors with their considerable musical talents.
On Friday and Sunday evenings at the Hampshire House, Conner and Sears, along with professional singers Valerie Anastasio, Eric Bonner and Cynthia Mork, performed eighteen musical pieces of the past by Alan Jay Lerner at a ‘loverly’ evening called Chic and Delishious – all while guests dined on gourmet three-course dinners of house specialties.
The pair are what many would call Renaissance men. Conner, for example, has degrees in German, education, business administration, as well as musicology and performance in classical piano and vocal music. Since 2012, he has shared his passion for music and history, any kind he said, by teaching 22 seminars of up to 40 students each. He often shares the podium with Sears, his partner and a man with the same leanings.
The two met nearly twenty years ago and discovered a common love for the history of American popular music. Conner is an accomplished vocalist and pianist, and Sears is ‘an attractive, vibrant baritone with a theatrical temperament’, according to a review by the Boston Globe. They have performed ever since as ‘Ben and Brad.’
Known as ‘singing scholars’ at Harvard Law School where they both work as administrative assistants to pay their bills, according to Conner, the pair focus mainly on the works of songwriting greats from the Great American Songbook and often track down rare classic songs from the vast repertory of this country’s music.
Those popular favorites and rare classics shaped the weekend program, which was part of the American Classics series of concerts first launched by the two in 1995. Conner, the music director and accompanist of the weekend performances, introduced the songs from My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon and lesser known musicals like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with an often humorous synopsis of their original setting. “We enjoy finding the background of what we’re singing,” said Conner. “It gives the music a context. From the performer’s view, you can interpret the material better if you know its history.”
Sears and Anastasio’s crowd pleasing interpretation of How Could You Believe Me, for example, was very loosely based on the original performance in the musical Royal Wedding. “We were using the idea that it was a vaudeville-style look at a couple of lowlifes,” said Sears. “Knowing the film version gave us a starting point. The real thing with that song is just that it’s silly and we should have fun with it, like what Fred Astaire and Jane Powell do in the film.”
After listening to evening’s final performance, a medley of songs from Brigadoon that evoked the hills of Scotland, Joe Bain of Exeter, who had been at the opening performance of Brigadoon in 1949, said, “The performance was as glorious then as it was here tonight.”
Some members of the audience, many of whom are regular Ben and Brad followers, said they particularly enjoyed listening to the performers as they moved about the dining tables in the Hampshire House library. “There is a special magic in seeing something very good when it’s performed right in front of you,” said South Boston resident Paul McInnis, who is currently enrolled in Conner’s Irving Berlin seminar.
Beacon Hill is a perfect setting for the performance, said Conner. “What I love about the songs from My Fair Lady is that they were written in England, but the play could have been set under a gas lamp right here in Beacon Hill. And when you have music this classy, the library of the Hampshire House is the perfect ambiance,” said Connor. “It looks just like Henry Higgins’ library.”
The American Classics series wraps up with The Wit and Wisdom of Comden & Green on April 8 in Lexington and April 10 Cambridge. The concert will feature songs with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne and others. For tickets and information call 617-254-1125 or visit www.amclass.org.