South American couple met in Chicago

Posted on Thu, 07/01/2021 - 12:30pm

Original owners brought together by love of music

By Ron Cohn

George and Avany Penaherrera were looking forward to celebrating their 50th year at Malibu East when George – a vital, active and otherwise healthy 90-year-old – sadly fell victim to COVID-19 and died last Dec. 3.

It would be difficult to find a couple with a more colorful or romantic Hollywood-style backstory. George, born in Ecuador, and Avany, a native of Brazil, both made their way to the U.S. and were fated to discover each other in Chicago, taking voice lessons with the same teacher.

A dedication to music and vocal performance at the highest level was one of the lifelong interests of this talented couple, each of whom had long and successful careers outside of the arts, his in oil refining and hers in banking.

They were newlyweds renting in Oak Park, ready to make a change and buy a place to live, as Avany recalls it, but the question was: Where?

I had wanted a house out where I could harvest my own veggies, raise chickens and have beehives, but George had his mind fixed on living near Lake Michigan, and he won! Our desire was to live within the city limits, somewhere north of downtown. Lake Shore Drive or Sheridan Road were our choices. Cruising Sheridan Road, we saw a big sign, ‘Condos for Sale’ at a parked trailer on the southwest corner of Thorndale.

After looking at specs, floor plans, unit sizes and the building structure, with its larger balconies, Malibu East seemed like a good choice. Despite not knowing much of this neighborhood, we took a chance and committed to buy our future home here.”

Avany says the location and transportation figured into their decision – subjects George regarded as important. “As commuters we looked for fast, easy travel to downtown and the North Side, and by car or public transportation this location offered excellent accessibility.”

She mentions another reason for their choosing Malibu East was that it was built as a condominium, and was not a rental conversion.

When the building was ready for occupancy in July 1971, the Penaherreras moved into their unit, which remains Avany’s home to this day.

Our hallway had a concrete floor,” she remembers. “The carpeting came later on. But from the start, the splendid view of Lake Michigan revealed its majesty far to the south and the beautiful sunsets in the west were a bonus for sure! Having a sizable balcony added an extension to our quarters which we used extensively during summer months, and the numerous amenities added to the quality of life here.

The beginning years at Malibu East made us feel at home and we made many friends. During summer weekends we spent pleasant time together on the fourth-floor deck by the pool. They were relaxing and enjoyable moments – chatting, nibbling on home­made goodies, savoring a glass of wine and, in those years, ‘suntanning.’ Those were days of healthy conviviality with friends here.”

Flashback to another time, another continent

George was born in the capital city Quito, Ecuador. At an early age he was introduced to classical music and developed a strong taste for it. In grade school he was selected to sing in the boys choir and at home spent hours listening to classical records, which kindled a desire to take serious voice lessons at a higher level. He dreamt of a career as an operatic tenor, ranking with Caruso and other international icons of those days. A dream fraught with a great deal of competition, and ultimately put on hold.

At the Central University of Ecuador, George majored in economics and political science, with classical music relegated to a minor. After graduation, a more pragmatic career goal took precedence. In 1953, with his parents having relocated to Chicago, he came to America and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier for a two-year program of study in concrete and structural design.

Avany, in contrast, grew up in the south of Brazil, on what she describes as “a beautiful, diverse farm, where I observed nature at its best.” But music was an important part of her early life as well. Her mother, a teacher, was an organist. Her father, who tended to the farm, played the clarinet and they immersed Avany and her siblings in music as a family activity.

Two different routes to America

After high school, Avany was one of a select few students to be invited to come to America under a sponsorship program. She met the sponsoring family in 1960 at the World Baptist Alliance in Rio de Janeiro, where she was part of a 1,000-voice chorus and, after being interviewed, was offered the prized invitation.

My family agreed for me to embrace such an opportunity. Who wouldn’t?” she says.

Six months later, at the start of 1961, I was here, under the sponsorship of a wonderful, loving family. My beginnings in the U.S. were interesting but challenging. Culture shock! I knew no English. In high school, it was compulsory to study a foreign language, with three to choose from. Not knowing what lay in my future, I chose French. My sponsoring family didn’t know what they were facing, having to teach me English from scratch … ‘this is a fork, this is a spoon.’ Boy, I thought to myself, what am I getting into here?”

George’s travel to Chicago involved quite a bit more adventure. He was booked to sail from Ecuador to New York on an ocean liner, through the Panama Canal, but he disembarked, along with another young man he had met aboard, in Havana. There, they indulged in a few days of entertainment before making their way to Miami, and utimately New York, where more adventure, and misadventure, awaited. A prime destination was Carnegie Hall, where George was eager to “feel the vibe of a great musical center.” Even in 1953, however, it was not a good idea to leave suitcases on the back seat of an unlocked car in midtown Manhattan.

George eventually arrived in Chicago, probably in cheap new clothes from Sears, Avany guesses, and sans his school records and other valuables.

Studying, learning, and music, music, music

Besides the private tutorial classes and day-in, day-out drills to learn English, Avany remembers her struggles with weights and measures – “the metric system is sooo much easier” – and having to learn musical notes in a different scale. “Everything was strange and difficult, and on top of it all, I missed my family back home.” She credits the patience and dedication of her sponsors – a well-educated, intel­lectual, loving family – with providing the inspiration and encouragement she needed to overcome it all.

Her progress was swift. By the fall of 1961 she was singing in English in the church choir and was enrolled at a business college chosen by the family, taking courses in English, accounting, shorthand and other needed skills.

New as I was with the English language, taking shorthand and converting it to accurate, readable written form was a challenge. But I completed the courses in two years and was ready for my very first job. Yup! It worked. Later, I attended Loyola University and I worked for 30 years as a banker, a mortgage lending assistant vice president.”

George’s beginnings in Chicago were very exciting, Avany relates. He experienced an unaccustomed feeling of freedom as he explored his interests. While at the U of I, he seriously pursued learning English at night and took a part-time job at the University Club on Michigan Avenue. He completed his postgrad coursework in two years and quickly found a position in the oil refining industry. However, George had never abandoned what Avany describes as his love affair with classical music and his pursuit of operatic performance.

Through various connections, he braved the unknown and checked into places to go for voice lessons,” Avany recalls, remembering George’s history, although she had not yet met him at that time. “Someone referred him to the Fine Arts Conservatory of Music. His first voice teacher told him, ‘I can help develop your voice for you to be a high-end opera singer … someday.’

He learned a lot and did sharpen his vocal abilities with this teacher, and with many other voice coaches as they came along, but the dream of becoming a real operatic performer did not totally materialize. George was not the type of individual to give up something he really liked. He was always a direct, sure, straightforward, intellectual man.”

George was given the opportunity to sing in the tenor section of the Lithuanian Chorale for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem, which led to the chance to sing with smaller opera groups around Chicago. On many occasions he garnered the leading tenor roles. Although fully employed, singing commitments never seemed to be a burden for him.

A ‘storybook’ meeting; the duet begins

Avany tells the story: “In the spring of 1964 I was taking voice lessons at the same place, and with the same pianist, as George. At a recital performance of one of his friends, he asked the pianist to introduce him to ‘that gal sitting in the back.’ A phone call came and we met, to instant confusion. This was not the one I was expecting to meet! I ‘had my eye on’ the performing singer. What to do? Back up (and confess) or go forward? We were going to be seeing each other nearly every day, I thought. No need to continue with the rest.”

They got together and, for the couple, the music played on. George was singing with the renowned Swedish Choral Club and Avany was invited to join as a soprano. They sang in many performances together, with this group and others. In June 1965 she had her first recital at her church in Oak Park.

George’s singing career, meanwhile, really took off. “During our beginning years together, George joined the Grant Park Chorus and ultimately, in 1976, the ‘mighty’ Chicago Symphony Chorus. The experience of being a member, for 16 years, of this famously perfectionist body truly brought him the joy of top singing with the BEST.”

Avany, in the decades of the 1990s and the 2000s, devoted a great deal of her time and expertise to the betterment of Malibu East, serving on the Board three times, including a stint on the Finance Committee, where her banking know-how was valuable.

George retired from the oil refining industry at age 78 to enjoy life leisurely and in good health. The couple traveled extensively in Europe and South America and were 40-year season-ticket holders at the Lyric Opera. George indulged his love of ballroom dancing, including the tango, and he was good at both, according to Avany. “George was a man of incredible stamina and discipline. He was an avid exercise warrior who never stopped his physical activity. He had a passion about the intricacies of our universe, plus a sharp knowledge of history, geography, economics and politics.

Having lost him has made me deeply sad. I loved George as a friend, a companion and a steady provider until the end. He lived life and his experiences fully. I admired his intellectual wisdom and miss his presence very much.”