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A Wunderkind Unafraid to Take His Time

September 1, 2009 | By Pierre Ruhe
MusicalAmerica.com
ATLANTA -- At Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, a giant suburban rock pavilion that's also the summer home of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the final show of the outdoor classical season is billed as "Rising Stars." The stock overture-concerto-symphony program is headlined by young violinist Elena Urioste and a wunderkind making his U.S. professional debut, 16-year-old conductor Ilyich Rivas.

Urioste radiates charm and virtuosity, but let's face it: violin prodigies are so last century. From Heifetz and Menuhin to Midori and Sarah Chang, we've experienced generations of mind-boggling wizardry emanating from the half-sized violins of children. Conducting is different, however, since the art isn't technique- and rule-bound but entirely fluid – benefitting from life experience and the mature virtues of wisdom, persuasion and negotiation.

Ilyich Rivas, who completed the tenth grade in May, is already on track for a solid professional career. In his dressing room, backstage at the amphitheater, Rivas appears at first glance a typical teen -- tall, gangly, pimply and a little shy -- but as soon as he speaks he's both poised and articulate, answering questions about life, attitudes and goals in full paragraphs. He doesn't sound rehearsed, just uncommonly (for any age) analytical, mentally disciplined and careful in choosing his words.

"When I was ten or eleven, I was lazy practicing the piano," he recalls, searching for the memory as he pinches a Coke bottle by the neck and swings it like a pendulum. "My parents weren't strict with me [about practicing], but one day I decided I needed to dedicate the proper time to it and not just hang out. After that I started to improve. Now I am not lazy. My father tells me to take a day off sometimes."

Born in Venezuela and raised in Ohio and Colorado, Rivas let his family know his ambitions from age six, when he started conducting the home stereo. At nine he made his debut with real musicians, a wind band in Cincinnati. A year later, he led two movements from Mozart's Symphony No. 40 with an orchestra in Venezuela.

Conducting is in Rivas’ genes. His grandfather, José Rivas, was a band leader in Caracas. Aunts and uncles were musicians. Father Alejandro, 41, has his own conducting career and has taught conducting at the college level. He is still his son's teacher, mentor and companion.

"From the beginning," Ilyich says, "my father taught me in a systematic manner but let me do what I wanted, adding but never taking away. We sometimes disagree about music but he's 99.99 percent always right, so I've learned not to argue with him about music."

Although young Rivas considers himself culturally more Venezuelan than American -- he's working in the U.S. with a green card and is applying for citizenship -- he has no connection with Venezuela's much-heralded music education program, El Sistema, nor with the program's most flamboyant success, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who begins this month as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

For better and worse, Rivas will be compared to Dudamel for years to come. Both young men look like conductors from Central Casting: handsome, expressive faces, a shock of unruly dark hair and piercing eyes. Rivas is cautiously flattered, for now, but pointedly observes, "conductors must be themselves and it's the diversity of approaches to music that makes them interesting. Dudamel has his way, I have mine."

As we talk, someone enters the dressing room with a tray of chocolate-dipped strawberries. The debutant maestro's eyebrows shoot skyward. "I might have one before the concert, to get my energy up," he enthuses.

As a child, reports father Alejandro, Rivas was persistent, “since he was so little -- 'I want to conduct!' Now we depend on each other, travel together, go to concerts together and then review the score afterwards. I never tried to steer him, it came about very naturally."

"Ilyich's father is gifted as a conductor," says Marin Alsop, who knew his work from her days leading the Colorado Symphony, "and he's invested in his son's development. They work together as a team, it's quite remarkable how much they achieve."

From the start Ilyich's talent was evident, and his links with the international scene continue to grow. The 16-year-old just spent the summer studying at the Verbier Festival with Kurt Masur and at Glyndebourne with Vladimir Jurowski -- with a possible return for next summer as a proper assistant conductor.

Rivas came to make his U.S. professional debut here after his London agent, Nicholas Mathias of IMG Artists, showed a DVD of him to the Atlanta Symphony's Director of Artistic Planning Evans Mirageas. He in turn showed it to Music Director Robert Spano, who decided to book him on the spot.

In the final analysis, Rivas got the Atlanta Symphony to play beautifully. He found fresh asides accompanying the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. But if a listener expected share the thrill of a teenage boy at the helm of a sleek vessel racing at top speed in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, forget it. His approach was musical, careful, detailed and often very slow. He took pains to insure that he was in control at all times. This is an interesting and unusual 16-year-old, one who knows the limits of his own authority. He's clearly building on his artistry without haste.

Starting this month, the Rivas family -- with parents and younger twin sisters, age eight -- takes up in Baltimore, as Ilyich assists Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony while studying at the Peabody Conservatory of Music with Gustav Meier. Alejandro, who quit his teaching job in Denver, plans to enter the east coast freelance conducting circuit. Money might be tight for a while, the father admits. And key to nurturing and protecting the young talent, say all the adults in his circle, is letting him develop at his own pace. "I'm not actively promoting him yet, not talking to orchestras about him," says agent Mathias. "In two years, at 18, he'll still be at the beginning."


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