At 17, Ilyich Rivas conducts the BSO with a seasoned flair

ONE TO WATCH: Rivas is a BSO-Peabody conducting fellow.
ONE TO WATCH: Rivas is a BSO-Peabody conducting fellow. (Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)
By Alfred Thigpen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010

It is better to talk openly about a no-hitter in the bottom of the ninth than to label anyone a prodigy, especially Ilyich Rivas, who is something else altogether. On Saturday at Strathmore, Rivas, a BSO-Peabody conducting fellow, led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a clever program of youthful compositions by Beethoven, Mahler and a 19-year-old Shostakovich. By the way, Rivas happens to be 17.

The opener, Brahms's "Academic Festival Overture," was the program's single midlife work, but composed in gratitude for an honorary doctorate, keeping things thematically appropriate given Rivas's ongoing studies at Peabody.

Clearly, Rivas lives and directs in the moment, but not necessarily the exact same moment as his orchestra, which, during Brahms's faster passages, initially lagged a visually distracting quarter pulse behind. As the musicians came to rely more on Rivas and less on principal players, this matter was quickly resolved, leading to the work's triumphantly played chorale ending.

In perhaps the most logistically demanding portion of the concert, Rivas collaborated with a youthful Markus Groh in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2. The challenge here was to make coherent a sometimes piebald work riddled with much later revisions. Groh, however, gave the concerto a masterfully consistent reading, tearing into the original sections as though they belonged to Beethoven's later period and relying on precision more than sheer volume at points of revision. In a break from the norm, Groh's performance drew sufficient applause to warrant an encore.

As for "Blumine," Mahler was right to pull it as the original second movement from his Symphony No. 1. Simply put, it is too naive to stand with the forceful drive of the "Titan" symphony. Nonetheless, thanks in no small part to Andrew Balio's eloquent playing of the work's opening trumpet solo passage (as perilous as the opening of Mahler's Fifth), "Blumine" not only stood alone but evoked flashbacks to Cleveland's ensemble sound under Szell.

The triumph of the evening was clearly Rivas's reading of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1. The work experiments stylistically with elements as disparate as Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky and is an open invitation to disaster, especially in its fast-paced wind ensemble sections, which were anchored by the strength and agility of clarinetist Steven Barta.

Crucially, Rivas understood this work like some equestrians are said to understand horses. Totally in control, Rivas's reading was at once ebullient and masterful. This Shostakovich symphony could well become his signature work.

BSO has assiduously avoided the "prodigy" designation for Rivas, who is the product of serious parental involvement, passion for his subject, great schooling and undeniable aptitude. Rivas's success is also testimony to his native Venezuela's rise to global preeminence in music education via El Sistema, in which he participates as a teacher/conductor.

While pianist Groh's career is on solid footing, Rivas's is nascent. But to see him is to be reminded of a young Toscanini. All the physicality, memory and precision are there. If Rivas continues to expand his repertoire and ventures into the world of opera, his energetic and lyrical style will serve him well. He should enjoy a legendary career.

Thigpen is a freelance writer.

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