(Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
When he stands before an orchestra, his cues are precise, his tempos clear; his face takes on a wide variety of expressions, from fierce to cherubic, as he shapes the melodic phrases.
The only outward sign that Ilyich Rivas is not a seasoned professional conductor is some telltale acne. He's all of 16.
Ilyich is doing what many in the music community consider remarkable. Having hurriedly earned his GED last June, he is now at the Peabody Conservatory in a diploma program designed for graduate students.
"I don't tell people my age, especially because of the girls," he says with a magnetic smile. "You miss not having friends your own age in school - you can mess up at that age. But it's great being at Peabody. I'm spoiled by everybody."
Ilyich is also spending a lot of time with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, observing, getting pointers from guest conductors and, especially, having one-on-one sessions with music director Marin Alsop.
"It is wonderful to learn things from her," Ilyich says. "She is obviously at the level I aspire to be."
It's all part of the perks of being awarded the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship, which he started this fall.
Although there are exceptions, such as acclaimed conductor Lorin Maazel, who led the New York Philharmonic in a concert at age 12, youthful conductors are rare.
"I don't think there is a single school in this country that has an undergraduate conducting program," says Gustav Meier, director of Peabody's conducting program. "There should be more opportunities for them to start earlier."
Ilyich started very early.
"He got interested in coming with me to rehearsals when he was 5 or 6," says his father, Alejandro Rivas, a lawyer-turned-conductor who was directing a choir in his native Venezuela at the time. "Ilyich was very much awake during rehearsal time. ... He would be asking musicians questions during the break. Then, at home, he would ask questions of me."
Soon, Alejandro Rivas was teaching his son the rudiments of conducting.
"Ilyich used to get up on a chair and call out, 'Come here, everybody, and watch me,' " says his mother, Marjorie Carrero. "And he would conduct to CDs."
Conducting at 9
Eight years ago, Alejandro Rivas moved the family to Ohio so he could further his own conducting studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He invited a professor to dinner one night.
"Of course, Ilyich was ready to conduct for him," his father says. "Three months later, the professor invited him to conduct a Sousa march with the college orchestra."
That performance, preserved on video, shows a cute, slightly chubby boy in a white-tie-and-tails outfit leading the university orchestra in a poised rendering of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," complete with a neat little tempo modulation near the end. Ilyich was 9.
The boy memorized Mozart and Beethoven symphonies and conducted them as recordings played.
"He was not just waving his arms, but making some logical gestures," Alejandro Rivas says. "I realized he had an incredible, huge talent. Since then, we have worked on pieces really hard, making sure he has a complete understanding of the piece."
Ilyich went on to gain more podium time with a youth orchestra in Venezuela and, after the family moved to Colorado, the student ensemble at the Denver School for the Arts, which he attended.
"The principal conductor got sick in January, and I got to do a lot of conducting, which was great - not that he got sick, but that I got the experience," Ilyich says. "The other kids weren't sure about me at first. One guy said, 'I was helping you in math class and now you're telling me what to do?' But when they found out I wasn't a joke, it went fine."
Before coming to Peabody
A few other ensembles provided opportunities to hone his talent. One was the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, where Alsop is music director laureate.
"His dad came back after a concert and said he had a DVD of his son," Alsop says. "I thought, 'Oh, God,' but I watched it, and it documented his progress from the age of 9. You could see each step get exponentially better."
By the time she saw the most recent part, showing Ilyich leading a movement of Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler from memory, she was hooked.
"He's so charismatic," says Alsop, who sent the DVD to Meier. Both conductors invited Ilyich to participate in a workshop they run each summer at the Cabrillo Festival in California. That was in 2008.
"We were very much impressed," Meier says. "Clearly, he needed some work. We all do, all the time. That's why being at Peabody will be great for him."
Last February, Alsop invited Ilyich to lead a few minutes of rehearsal with the BSO. This served as the fellowship audition.
"It was a fantastic experience," he says. "It was what I had dreamed of, to conduct an orchestra at that level. I still have dreams about it - how musical everyone was, how they reacted to my gestures."