The Randomly Focused Career of Benjamin Rivera

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I went to Lane Technical High School with Benjamin Rivera. We sang in chorus together under the highly regarded music educator, George Rico, whose service to Chicago Public Schools spanned 52 years. I credit Mr. Rico for my own commitment to the classical music community, and I’d like to believe that Ben Rivera was also affected by Rico’s zeal. Anecdote: In 1992, Benjamin and I competed against each other in the CPS All-City Vocal Solo competition. I won with Handel’s “Ombra mai fu,” but I suspect that was the last time I have ever been judged more favorably than Benjamin RIvera.

Since high school, I have watched Benjamin hustle to finish three degrees, including a Master’s in Music Theory from Roosevelt’s CCPA, and a Doctorate in Choral Conducting from Northwestern, all the while working as an ensemble singer and diction coach, which drew on skills from his first degree in Voice Performance from North Park University. Benjamin has sung 16 seasons-to-date with Grant Park Festival Chorus. The roster of GPMF chorus is comprised of Chicago’s best musicians who sing, and who don’t crack under the profeasionalism expected of them. GPMF chorus does not use section leaders, so there is no obvious pipeline for assistants to ascend the ranks. Benjamin began his rise in the ensemble coaching diction in 2004, and most-recently was called upon to prepare the chorus for last season’s Carmina Burana.

2018-19 is Benjamin’s 22nd season with CSO Chorus. The retirement of Associate Conductor Don Horisberger, and the stepping down of William Chin as Assistant Conductor, coupled with the appointment of Associate Conductor Cheryl Frazes Hill to Director of Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, created a vacuum in the CSO Chorus leadership. Three Chicagoans are now called Assistant Conductor: Jennifer Kerr Budziak, Andrew Lewis, and Benjamin Rivera.

Benjamin also put in ten years with Chicago a cappella, five years with Bella Voce, and has been the Director of the semi-professional group Cantate since 2000. In 2016, Ben left his position as Choir Director of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston to assume the same role at the venerated Church of the Ascension, where the renowned Thomas Wikman used to lead the most respected church choir in Chicago.

Why am I giving you Ben Rivera’s CV? In part, it is to help promote William Ferris Chorale’s upcoming performances, guest conducted by Rivera. WFC, a professional ensemble with a storied history, is in a leadership transition period following the departure of Paul French, who served as Music Director from 2005 to 2016, and who left a strong imprint on the DNA of the group. (Neither Rivera nor La Caccina’s Carling FitzSimmons, who also guest conducted WFC, have been officially asked to take over the Music Director position.)

The other reason to list all of Benjamin’s accomplishments (he is married to the excellent soprano Alexia Kruger and is the father of an adorable 4-year-old), is to inspire readers to do all the things and do them well. Benjamin’s path to being one of the most sought-after musicians in Chicago feels random, though it capitalizes on the various skills developed over a lifetime of loving the human voice. The Cantate gig, apart from conducting an amateur contemporary Christian church choir, was offered to Benjamin after earning his Bachelor’s degree at North Park. That was followed by the pursuit of the theory degree, while teaching voice, aural skills, and diction at St. Xavier University and Trinity Christian College. Conducting was more of a hobby until he pursued it formally at Northwestern. The German language coaching brought him to the attention of GPMF’s Christopher Bell. Benjamin invited Bell to his conducting recital, and he actually showed up! Who knows if that performance gave Christopher Bell the idea to ask Benjamin to assist with the chorus? To be considered as Christopher Bell’s second-in-command would already be a rare distinction. Add to that Benjamin’s assignments at CSO and Church of the Ascension, and you now have a musician who is critical to the choral scene in Chicago.

Benjamin Rivera tells me that he took opportunities as they came, positioning himself to be qualified through his training and professional experiences. Of his three degrees, he says that the first was to learn How to Make Music with the voice, the second was to be able to Analyze the Music, and the third was to understand how to Put It All Together. I am in awe of his meandering, and yet, focused trajectory. Perhaps his achievements in Chicago music-making are an echo of what George Rico taught us. Or maybe Benjamin did all of these things just to get back at me for beating him at All-City.

William Ferris Chorale performs Gabriel Jackson's a cappella Requiem and James MacMillan's masterpiece, Cantos Sagrados, for organ and chorus Friday at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Lakeview, and Saturday at First United Church of Oak Park.

Erica Schuller and Ryan De Ryke

Erica Schuller and Ryan De Ryke

One of the most successful productions in Haymarket Opera’s history, first seen in 2013 when the company performed at the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park, is coming back. Pimpinone is a hilarious romp that features the company’s most experienced and most engaging singing actors. Erica Schuller draws upon years of historically-informed staging including work with Gilbert Blin at Boston Early Music Festival. Schuller’s stage craft is paralleled only by her partner in this comic intermezzo, Ryan de Ryke, who appears to have been born in the wrong millennium, his Baroque-ness and“Extra”-ness coming so naturally, it is alarming. As always, Meriem Bahri’s sumptuous costumes contribute to a deluxe opera-going experience. Pimpinone will be performed March 30-April 2 at the Studebaker Theater.

Following her recital with Allen Perriello for Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, the glitter-voiced soprano Joélle Harvey along with tenor Josh Lovell and baritone Neal Davies will be featured in performances of Bach’s secular “Coffee” cantata with Music of the Baroque on Sunday in Skokie, and Monday at the Harris Theater. There is only one vocal work on the program, but Harvey is a Mozartean/Handelian you should know.

Finally, Transgressive Theatre-Opera is back in action again this weekend with famous letter scenes and arias from operas ranging from Barber of Seville to Ballad of Baby Doe. Featured performers include the reliable storefront opera regular Noah Gartner, baritone; the compelling and daring Mary Lutz-Govertsen who stole the show in last week’s Count Ory; Thompson Street Opera’s Artistic Director, Claire DiVizio, who is also a fine burgeoning lirico-spito soprano in her own right; and one of VAC’s Best of 2018, countertenor Bruno Rivera. Bruno will sing “Dunque io son” with baritone Nathan James Kistler, who was the tender co-star of Thompson Street’s When Adonis Calls. It’s hard to describe Transgressive Theatre-Opera’s aesthetic. They produce interesting work on a limited budget, and may exist only to showcase the uniquely talented singers who saturate the Chicago storefront opera scene.