Meet Riikka Pietiläinen Caffrey

The Finnish-American teaching artist, conductor, and singer is the new director of the University Chorale of Boston College

“Be bold, be curious, be open, and sing.”

For teaching artist, conductor, and singer Riikka Pietiläinen Caffrey, who is wrapping up her first semester as director of the University Chorale of Boston College, the quote—which she posted on a global professional networking site for the choral community—reflects both her passion for music and her approach as leader of the venerable BC vocal ensemble.

In rehearsals, she encourages Chorale members to try new things. “In addition to learning the repertoire, we work on vocal technique. Only through experimenting we can find what works best for us as the University Chorale,” she said. “I have asked the singers to breathe together and start a piece, sing a song with their eyes closed, or work on a song without a conductor. Process and learning take time, and we can all learn from each other to build on the experience, not just as singers, but also as respectful members of this community.”

An associate professor of the practice and director of choral and vocal performance in the Music Department, her research interests include holistic choral experience, cross-disciplinary artistic collaborations, redefining the choral canon, and equity and inclusivity in music education.

“We extend the warmest of welcomes to Riikka Pietiläinen Caffrey as she takes up the reins of the University Chorale, an ensemble whose foundation is almost as old as BC itself,” said Music Department Chair and Professor Michael Noone. “We are delighted to have Riikka as a colleague.”

Caffrey succeeds long-time director John Finney, who retired in May. Next semester, she will teach Fundamentals of Music Theory in addition to her University Chorale leadership and oversight of the Music Department's vocal performance ensembles and private voice lessons.

With a doctor of musical arts degree from the University of Colorado and five years directing choirs at Bunker Hill Community College to her credit, she brings to the BC community a wealth of experience as a singer, a choral conductor, and a classroom instructor, Noone said.

In December, University Chorale voices will ring out during four “Christmas on the Heights” concerts in Trinity Chapel, a holiday tradition which will also showcase the Boston College Symphony Orchestra.

“[BCSO Director] Anna Wittstruck and I are joining forces: audiences will hear the BCSO and Chorale perform together, as well as their own selections. It will be a mix of the wonderful tradition John Finney established, with some new ideas," said Caffrey, who hopes the concerts, which will feature a student conductor, will draw BC community members including alumni.

Caffrey is impressed with the dedication and talent of University Chorale members. “Despite their rigorous academics and commitment to multiple outside activities, the singers come diligently to rehearsals and all events we have, in addition to concerts. Our academic setting brings an expectation to perform at our best, and share polished, well-sung programs with our audiences. With every program I want my singers and audiences to learn something new—whether it is about themselves, the music, composers, concepts, or the community and world that surround us.”

August 23, 2023 -- Riikka Pietiläinen Caffrey, Associate Professor of the Practice in the Music Department at Boston College's Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences (MCAS).

Riikka Pietiläinen Caffrey (Caitlin Cunningham)

Born in Kemi, Finland, Caffrey lauded BC's commitment to the service of others, citing it as a strong reason for her interest in this position. Her own dedication to social advocacy includes service as the Back Bay Chorale community engagement coordinator; in that role, she leads a weekly ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) Chorus at the Boston Public Library.  

“As an immigrant I feel a strong sense of belonging; we all speak multiple languages and have two or more home countries. This group is not just about singing, it is also about community, and a sense of belonging when most of our families are far.

“I strongly believe that music should not just exist in concert halls for customers who can afford to buy tickets,” she said. “Well-performed musical experiences should be available at no cost for all people, in libraries, schools, shelters, and community organizations. Not everyone has the luxury of attending concerts; we need to bring music to people.”

Her five-year goal, she said, is to facilitate group singing in homeless communities and for immigrants and refugees in New England.

In her native country, Caffrey sang and toured with the acclaimed Finnish choir Philomela. She immigrated to the United States to pursue music studies, and has a bachelor of fine arts degree in jazz performance from the City College of City University of New York, and both master of music and doctor of musical arts degrees in choral conducting from the University of Colorado.

Caffrey founded and conducted a women’s chamber choir, Las Sirenas, at City College, which premiered works by American and Finnish composers. She is part of the collaborative trio The String Only She Could Play—which incorporates music and poetry written by women, and blends styles from Baroque to jazz—with Proshot Kalami and Felice Pomeranz from Berklee College of Music.

Her compositions have been published by Alliance Music Publications and Kandinsky Music, her articles have appeared in American and Australian choral journals, and she is frequently invited as a soloist, adjudicator, and guest clinician for schools and choral ensembles in Europe and the U.S.

Prior to Boston College, Caffrey held academic positions at American University in Beirut, Lebanon, Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA, and Bunker Hill Community College. An active member of the Advocacy and Collaboration Committee of the American Choral Directors Association, she also chairs the Advocacy Committee for the International Alliance for Women in Music.

Caffrey’s recent collaborations include a project with Dominican-American poet Rhina Espaillat—who donated her archive to Burns Library in September, and gave a talk prior to the University Chorale’s fall concert at which her work was performed. The artistic director of Boston-based chamber ensemble “Coro Ignis,” Caffrey will make her Carnegie Hall debut in the spring of 2025. Select choirs from across the U.S. will be invited to take part in the performance; she hopes some University Chorale alumni may come and join in song.