A Passion for Performing

By Jesse Hamlin
Photography by Toby Burditt

Lino Rivera is dancing comically to the beat, swinging his arms, bobbing his head. He's grooving with the students in his Saint Mary's "Extreme Musicianship" class, talking with his body as they bang out syncopated rhythms on xylophone keys and hand drums. It's a rain-soaked morning in January, but the little room in Syufy Hall is lit up by Rivera's energy.

"You have to feel this downbeat," says the pony-tailed music professor, a passionate pianist and teacher whose joyous vibe is contagious. "You stomp, you grunt, I don't care what you do. You have to physicalize it. Otherwise you're not going to feel it.''

A few minutes later, during an ear-training exercise, Rivera sits down at the piano and messes with the harmony of "Here Comes the Bride," hitting a jarring diminished chord. "What? What? What was that?" he asks with a befuddled face that cracks up the class. "Make sure when you get married that you pay the musicians well so they don't play a diminished or augmented chord."

Rivera figures if his students are having as much fun as he is, they're paying attention and learning. Whether he's teaching or playing, "the goal is to just live music," says the 47-year-old. A much-admired soloist, chamber musician and accompanist, Rivera grew up in the Philippines, where he won his first competition at age 8 and appeared with the Metro Manila Symphony Orchestra at 17. He's prized by composers and audiences for the sensitivity and zeal he brings to his performances of new and challenging music.

An associate professor at Saint Mary's since 2006, Rivera arrived on campus a decade ago as a choral accompanist.

"Within six months, we realized we had a gold mine here," says composer and music professor Martin Rokeach, who chaired the Performing Arts Department until Rivera succeeded him last year. "The singers in the choir went crazy for him. We asked him to teach one class, music appreciation, and he was dynamite."

Named an assistant professor in 2002, Rivera now teaches everything from theory and music history to symphonic music, Medieval and Renaissance music, chamber music and private piano instruction. His students relish his seriously playful teaching style.

"He's really energetic and entertaining, and that makes it fun," says Elisa Fischer, a senior who's majoring in English with a music minor. A violinist and violist, she got an intensive dose of sight reading and ear training in Rivera's Jan Term class. "I've never had a teacher teach theory this way before, and I find it much easier to understand. He's so excited about it, he makes you excited about it. I've heard him perform at faculty recitals, and he's as passionate playing as he is teaching. He jumps up and down at the piano."

Aaron Rivera (no relation) also gives high marks to the kinetic teacher. "The thing I like most is that he plays music and connects it what we're learning," says the sophomore nursing student, a guitarist. "He puts things into perspective. He not only tells us something, he shows us where we could do it in a song."

Rokeach, who has heard Rivera play in many contexts over the years, is struck by the pianist's musicality and interpretive depth. Rokeach can still recall Rivera's stirring performance of contemporary American composer Frederic Rzewski's fiendishly difficult "North American Ballads," at San Francisco's Green Room in 2005 for Composers, Inc., formed to present the music of living American composers. Then there was Rivera's flawless playing of Beethoven's famously challenging "Hammerklavier" Sonata at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga two years later. Both works are featured on the CD that Rivera recently recorded and is marketing.

"There are a lot of great pianists out there, but Lino is fearless," says Rokeach, a Composers, Inc., artistic director who's had several pieces premiered by Rivera. "He will go after these absolutely frightening works, and kill himself working on them. With the Rzewski, for example, he was practicing every night until 2 or 3 a.m. He'll work his heart out for some performance, then a week later he's back at it, doing something new."

Rivera has always had that kind of discipline and energy. He grew up on a rice farm in the Filipino village of Niugan, 75 kilometers northeast of Manila. There was no running water or electricity. After school, Lino, the fifth of six children, helped his parents in the garden, fed the chickens, ducks and pigs, did his homework and then practiced the piano.

"The piano doesn't require electricity to play," says Rivera, sitting in Café Louis at Saint Mary's. A demonstrative man with a trim moustache and easy laugh — he punctuates his words by popping his eyes or shrugging his shoulders or waving his arms — he's wearing a purple pullover, black jeans and hiking boots (he'd taken off his black beret). "There was no TV, no Internet. What do you do after feeding the animals? You play the piano."

All his siblings played, but only Rivera went pro. His father, a music lover who plays the banjo, took him to Manila on weekends for private lessons. He won the first of many competitions at 8, playing Clementi's Concertina in C Major from memory. The prize was a year of free lessons from a piano professor at the University of the Philippines. Rivera's gifts eventually caught the attention of the dean of the University of Santo Tomas Conservatory of Music, who provided him a scholarship to study there.

But as much as he loved music, Rivera was also mad about science. He set his sights on becoming a physicist or engineer, figuring he'd play music for pleasure. He entered Manila's prestigious Mapua Institute of Technology, which trains engineers. After the first year, Rivera knew he was in the wrong place.

"Every time I'd attend a concert, I'd say, ‘This is what you should be doing,' " Rivera recalls. "That's when my heart and soul said, ‘you are a musician.'"

He went back to studying music full-time at Santo Tomas, won more piano competitions, did recital work and played concertos with the major Manila orchestras, sometimes on radio and television. After receiving his master's degree from the University of Hawaii, Rivera received his Ph.D. in piano performance at the University of Maryland at College Park. He couldn't bear the cold winters, so he moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1980s.

"I had relatives in Daly City, the biggest Filipino community outside of Manila," says Rivera, who lives in Moraga with his wife, Adriana, a classical guitarist turned music historian, and their 15-year-old daughter, Celestine, who sings with the San Francisco Girls Chorus. "I didn't have a job. I went to music stores, like Tupper & Reed in Berkeley, and looked at the bulletin board announcements. Someone needed an accompanist here, a teacher there."

His first steady gig was as a part-time accompanist with the Girls Chorus. He began accompanying the Piedmont Children's Choir, too, then Voci, the women's ensemble. Rivera's name got around. He taught piano, music history and theory at Diablo Valley College. Known for his versatility and simpatico style, he became a ubiquitous presence on the Bay Area music scene. He's equally adept playing with symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles, backing choirs and giving solo recitals on campus and around the country.

Rivera never seems to stop. He's currently an accompanist at several East Bay churches, including the Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church. In December, he performed Liszt's virtuosic Piano Concerto No. 1 with the California Youth Symphony. ("He melded with the ensemble better than many a pianist I've seen with the San Francisco Symphony," Rokeach raved in an e-mail to SMC colleagues.) He capped it with an ear-opening encore: the rhythmically bewitching "Ritual Dance" by one of his Filipino composition professors, Bernardino Custodio.

Last spring, Rivera played the world premiere of Bay Area composer Robert Greenberg's "Tempus Fugit" for Composers, Inc., one of many new works he's brought to life. In May, he plays another notoriously difficult piece, Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2, with the Sacramento State University Symphony. He calls it one of the monumental masterpieces of the entire piano repertoire.

"I love challenges. It bores me to death if things are too easy," Rivera says. "When I'm working on things that are challenging, it makes me probe deeper into myself. I find who I am. … The deeper I get into myself, the more I connect out there, to the whole universe, if you wish."

In the midst of playing, Rivera says, "You don't think about the difficulty, you're in the vortex of it; you are riding the wave, and you forget time passing by. Challenging pieces have the capability to put me into that different zone, that dimension, where time just stops. It's like you're in a trance."

The passionate pianists inspire Rivera: the late Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Emil Gilels, and the still-active Ivo Pogorelich and Evgeny Kissin.

"Why bother if you're not going to pour whole soul and heart and life and mind into it? Unrestrained, give it all, no holds barred, give it to me!" says Rivera, who listens to jazz and blues to relax. His favorite pianists, he adds, "have a sound that's very special to them. You could compare it to food. There are of a lot of spaghetti sauces, but there are special spaghetti sauces that have their own identity. I'm not trying to imitate their sound, but get my own sound, to find out what my spaghetti sauce is going to taste like."

For Rivera, teaching is an essential ingredient in his multifaceted musical life. He thrives on the give-and-take with his students and colleagues at Saint Mary's, whose bucolic setting reminds him of where he grew up. There have been times when Rivera worked solely as a concert pianist — practicing most of the day, going from city to city — and he found it a lonely existence.

"I have a lot of social interaction with people here — especially young people, who are open-minded," Rivera says. "I have colleagues here in the profession and the humanities. They all enrich me. I feel at home here. It's not only focused on music. At a regular conservatory, all you talk about is Chopin and Bach and Beethoven, this performer here and that performer there. Here, we can talk about subjects such as philosophy, history, sciences. I have a wider breadth and scope."

Rivera catches a question that makes him pause. What's the most important thing he can teach his students?

He ponders for a few moments then replies: "To discover who they are. And once you discover who you are, enrich what you have found, polish your talents. And then share what you have."