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Berklee's 60th anniversary party delights to the finish

Three Score: Berklee College of Music’s 60th Anniversary Concert
At: the Wang Theatre, Saturday night

The party got going late and ended without the whiz-bang finale that had been planned, but it's tough to fault a host so generous, ambitious, and eager to please.

The Berklee College of Music threw itself a 60th anniversary party Saturday night at a sold-out Wang Theatre, a giant three-hour group hug that featured a Grammy-laden cast of international performers backed by a 60-strong ensemble of strings, horns, and rhythm. Headliners included Paul Simon, Gloria Estefan, Herbie Hancock, pianist Michel Camilo, and merengue star Juan Luis Guerra, with uber-producer Phil Ramone calling the shots backstage and Bill Cosby serving as a loopy master of ceremonies.

Despite being overladen, the program never felt in danger of collapsing beneath its own considerable weight -- a testament to not only the immense skills of the musicians and production technicians but to the buoyant and enthusiastic crowd that was ready and willing to feel the love. We came to celebrate the remarkable achievements of Berklee, and while the cake may have been too large for us to blow out all the candles, we hardly cared.

The show was running an hour behind schedule by the time Simon went on at around 10:45 p.m. His four-song set of chestnuts was highlighted by the strong and sinewy groove of ''Graceland," with Hancock pitching in on piano, and he closed with ''Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard." Simon left the stage, presumably to return for a big-finish encore of ''Wartime Prayers" that would've included a backing choir, Hancock, and possible appearances by other headliners. But after a couple of minutes of apparent confusion onstage -- as the charged-up audience clapped in unison for more -- the announcement was made that the show was over.

Berklee's morning-after explanation for the abrupt ending was that the school would've had to pay for an additional chunk of Wang rental time if the show had gone past 11 p.m. The point of the evening, aside from gorging on a sonic birthday feast, was to raise money for the school's new Presidential Scholarship fund, and a Berklee spokesperson said the school opted to save the money for students rather than pay for a grand finale.

Whatever the reasons for the anticlimactic end, there was plenty to love about the evening -- even as Cosby's shtick grew wearisome. Cosby has made a small name for himself as a jazz drummer -- he even managed to bang out a few passable vibraphone lines Saturday in a duet with vibes master Gary Burton -- but as a host he often seemed like a drummer who couldn't quite find the beat.

By contrast, the music provided a bevy of memorable moments: the rousing finish of the house band's version of ''Birdland," ''Autumn Leaves" transformed by the captivating young bassist and singer Esperanza Spaulding, the impassioned performance of ''Caribe" by Camilo, the Latin groove of Burton's ''La Fiesta," including a corking showcase of the considerable skills of house-band bassist Abe Laboriel. Guerra threatened to transform the Wang into a big, sweaty merengue dance party, and Estefan kept the evening's distinctly Latin vibe going with the salsa of ''Mi Tierra."

At a pre-show press conference, Ramone called the event ''a dream night -- we're showing off a little bit tonight." It was a sweet dream.

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