A Crescendo of Achievements

Nicolás Lell Benavides ’10 shares how his Santa Clara experience and passion for composition led to the creation of his largest project to date: “Dolores.”

A Crescendo of Achievements
Nicolás Lell Benavides ’10 conducting his opera, “Tres Minutos” for Music of Remembrance. Photo by Ben Vanhouten.

Nicolás Lell Benavides ’10 wanted to be a musician. His major? Biology.

Benavides enjoyed his science classes and his classmates—but music, well, that was his real calling.

“I was always a musician, but I didn’t come to Santa Clara to study music. I was initially a biology major,” Benavides says. “I was in a funk band. SCU didn’t have a funk teacher but offered classical music lessons with [former instructor] Liliane Cromer, and I said, ‘Why the hell not!’”

Next thing he knew, four years had passed studying with Cromer, saxophonist Kristen Strom, and others. He’d learned everything from jazz to opera. Benavides eventually joined the SCU jazz band, ensembles, and choir. He even conducted the choir for his 2010 college graduation ceremony.

“I’m from New Mexico, I was not as exposed to the European classical genre. I virtually started with nothing, I couldn’t tell Beethoven and Mozart apart. I had to learn German, Italian, and French, and sing all of this classical music I’d never heard of,” Benavides says. “Liliane gave me the bug for opera and I had the best cohort of teachers who never made fun of me for being so green.”

As Santa Clara graduates often do, Benavides inched northward to San Francisco where he lived close to a decade before moving to Los Angeles in 2019. After working in the tech industry while earning a master’s in composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Benavides finished his doctorate at University of Southern California Thornton School of Music.

He has been on USC faculty since 2021, guiding the next generation of musicians through theory, oral skills, and composition courses, a full-circle moment in his music journey.

When he’s not teaching, Benavides uses his musical talents to create pieces that bring attention to important social issues. For example, he was commissioned by the nonprofit chamber music organization Music of Remembrance to write a 45-minute opera titled “Tres minutos” which delves into the emotional impact of the U.S.-Mexico border crisis.

“This project was particularly important to me because I had a lot of friends at SCU who were undocumented,” Benavides says. “It was kind of a return to SCU as I conducted many interviews and even hired Hector Vega ’10 as my dramaturg who is now a deputy public defender for undocumented immigrants [in San Francisco] and a DREAMer himself. He made sure everything we were doing in the opera was feasible and made sense, so that was an extremely valuable SCU connection.”

Benavides Nicolás 92 Pc Vivian Sachs
Benavides photographed by Vivian Sachs.

In 2023, Benavides has found himself simultaneously writing pieces for the New York Philharmonic with the Juilliard Pre-college Orchestra, New Century Chamber Orchestra, and Edwin Outwater, director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Benavides is also working on his largest project to date: “Dolores.”

The opera “Dolores,” commissioned by West Edge Opera, centers on the life and activism of United Farmworkers co-founder Dolores Huerta. It explores the emotional aftermath of her close ally Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 assassination, when Huerta continued to fight for labor rights, highlighting her leadership as a woman in a predominantly male-dominated era.

“Dolores’ son, Emilio Huerta J.D. ’87, went to Santa Clara for law school. He’s her lawyer, and we are all cousins, we’re family. So to write this opera and use music to provide emotional context to her civil rights activities at the time is an honor,” says Benavides. “My dramaturg for this piece, Karina Gutiérrez, is also a current drama professor at SCU, so there are endless Santa Clara connections that keep contributing to my career.”

Benavides attributes his music journey to his Santa Clara experience, where small class sizes and unwavering support from professors and peers laid the foundation for his success. As he continues to push the boundaries of composition and conducting, Benavides offers sage advice to aspiring musicians: Make space for play in your education and focus on personal fulfillment.

“As a modern call to action, do what AI cannot. Be on stage, play that instrument, take the classes you want to take, doing what you love makes you so much more interesting,” says Benavides. “It’s our one life, it’s our chance to make something beautiful. So let’s do it.”

Nicolás Lell Benavides ’10 Conducting "Pepito"

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