León, Tania 1943–
Tania León 1943–
Composer, conductor, music director
A multi-faceted musician, Tania León is an international figure in the music world. She has carved a niche for herself in contemporary music as a composer, conductor, and music director, in the process receiving numerous commissions and awards. Tania León “has distinguished herself as a proponent of music without category beyond a standard of excellence,” remarked long-time music commentator Howard Mandel in an article for EarMagazine. “Her enthusiasm for contemporary composers regardless of gender, race, or national origin indicates an all-embracing world view as befits a warm, lively woman who accepts no imposed limits to her own activity.”
The daughter of Oscar León Mederos and Dora Ferran, León was born in Havana, Cuba, on May 14, 1943, of a mixed ethnic background. Her ancestors hailed from China, Nigeria, France, and Spain. In Havana León studied piano, violin, and music theory, earning multiple bachelors degrees and a masters degree in music from the Carlos Alfredo Peyrellado Conservatory. While still a student she wrote her first compositions—boleros, bossa novas, and popular music. From 1964 to 1967 León performed as a piano soloist in her native country and acted as music director for a television station in Havana.
León immigrated to New York City in 1967. Two years later, she accidentally met Arthur Mitchell, who asked her to accompany on piano his new dance troupe—Dance Theater of Harlem. León improvised music to fulfill Mitchell’s rehearsal needs, and before long Mitchell offered León the music directorship of the troupe, a position she held until 1980. In addition to her artistic managerial activities, León began composing works for the troupe, such as Tones, on which she and Mitchell collaborated in 1970. The ballets The Beloved and Dougla quickly followed. Dough, in particular, met with success, becoming a regular part of the repertoire of European dance companies.
Although composing was well within the realm of imagination for León, at the time there were no women conductors, so she did not consider conducting a viable career choice. “Women conducing a symphony orchestra? Taboo. It was completely unheard of,” León recalled
At a Glance…
Born May 14, 1943, in Hanvana, Cuba; daughter of Oscar León Mederos and Dora Ferran. Education: Carlos Alfredo Peyrellado Conservatory, B.A., 1963, M.A., 1964; New York University, B.S. 1971, M.S., 1975.
Dance Theater of Harlem, music director, 1969-80; The Wiz on Broadway, music director, 1978; Lincoln Center Institute, resident composer, 1985; Brooklyn College, instructor, 1985—; Composers’ Forum, artistic director, 1988-91; Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, associate conductor, 1992—; New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Revson composer-in-residence, 1993—.
Selected awards: Young Composer’s Prize, National Council of the Arts, Havana, 1966; Alvin John Award, Council for Emigres in the Professions, 1971; CINTAS, 1976 and 1979; National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1975 and 1986; National Council of Women of the U.S. Achievement Award, 1980; Dean Dixon Achievement Award, 1985; ASCAP Composer’s Award, 1987-89; Mary Flagler Cary recording grant, 1989; Celebrate Brooklyn Achievement Award, 1990; Academy-Institute Award in Music of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1991; BMW Prize for Best Composition, 1994, Munich Biennale for New Music Theater, for Scourge of Hyacinths; Latina Woman of Hope, Bread and Roses Cultural Project, 1995.
Addresses: Home— New York City. Agent—Kay lor Management, Inc., 130 West 57th St., Ste. 8C, New York, NY 10019. Publisher— Peer-Southern Concert Music, 810 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019.
to Mandel. “It never crossed my mind.” Yet when the Dance Theater of Harlem performed at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy in 1971, León was unexpectedly given the opportunity to conduct the Julliard Orchestra, which was accompanying the troupe. “I was encouraged by Arthur Mitchell and Gian-Carlo Menotti to work with the orchestra,” reminisced Leon to Anne Lundy in the Black Perspective in Music. “They encouraged me to do that, and I had never done it in my life. It was my very first time, but I picked up the baton, and I conducted the performance.”
Upon returning to the United States, León began to study conducting formally with Laszlo Halasz, one of the founders of the New York City Opera. Encouraged, she enrolled at the Julliard School of Music to study with Vincent LaSilva. While working with the Dance Theater, León earned a bachelors degree in music and then a masters degree in composition from New York University. Three years later, León studied at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood with many guest conductors, among them the world famous Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.
León’s conducting activities extended far beyond the Dance Theater. At the invitation of composer-conductor Lukas Foss, she founded the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in 1977, which she conducted for the next 11 years. León also served as the music director-conductor of the 1978 Broadway production of The Wiz and the Dance in America series for public television. In 1979 she directed Robert Wilson’s Death, Destruction, and Detroit, and several years later she composed and directed the music for the plays Maggie Magalita and The Golden Window. After leaving her position with the Dance Theater, León appeared as a guest conductor at venues in the United States and Puerto Rico. León saw this as a pioneering time for her, and she faced problems “like any pioneer would,” she told Ebony. “It’s not common for a woman of my skin color to conduct serious music, so I have to know the score inside out, or work twice as hard as male conductors.”
In the mid-1980s, León began to express her diverse musical background in her compositions. She assimilated gospel and jazz, as well as Latin American and African elements into pieces, creating a highly rhythmic and colorful signature sound. For example, in Carabali, a piece for orchestra, Leon employed rhythms and improvisation from Cuban jazz, in a far-ranging blend of tonal colors and rhythmic patterns. Explaining that the Carabali are Africans who fought off slave traders to become known as an indomitable people, León described in Peer-Southern Concert Music the piece named Carabali as “a symbol of a spirit that cannot be broken.” León added, “I have tried to convey such an image by creating a body of sounds propelled by a persistent rhythmic language.” Upon the premier of the work, a reviewer for the Cincinnati Enquirer remarked, “Highly intellectual, and a demanding piece for both orchestra and conductor, Carabali is both accessible and powerful.”
León’s compositions garnered praise and soon earned her recognition as a new voice in the music world. In 1985 she was awarded a residency at the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City and won the Dean Dixon conducting award. She also joined the composition faculty of the Brooklyn College Conservatory, where she was made full professor in 1994.
In the 1990s, León hit her stride, with a steady stream of residencies, guest conducting appearances, and commissions for new pieces. In the fall of 1992, she conducted the Johannesburg Symphony during the Dance Theater of Harlem’s historic trip to South Africa, when the company became the first multiracial arts group to perform and teach there in modern times. León has been invited to appear as a guest conductor-composer at Harvard University, Yale University, the Cleveland Institute, the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, the Bellagio Center in Italy, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the Beethovenhalle Orchestra in Germany, and elsewhere.
In 1993 León accepted a three-year appointment as Revson Composer Fellow for the New York Philharmonic. Her responsibilities included advising conductor Kurt Masur about contemporary music, which she believes puts off many potential listeners. The antidote, according to León, is using orchestras in community outreach; otherwise, audiences for classical music will continue to dwindle, seriously threatening its existence. “An orchestra, for me, is an educational institution, and each orchestra member is a specialist, as well as a teacher,” León explained in the LS.A.M. Newsletter. “It is terribly important that we walk constantly into schools and community centers to offer master classes that expose our youngsters to the art of music.” “If all of us—players, conductors, administrators—reassess our priorities and devote some time to community work, we will take important steps toward rebuilding our image and our audiences,” she added. León has long put her words into action, beginning with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in the late 1970s and extending to the master classes she taught at the Hamburg Musikschule in Germany in 1995.
León also acts as artistic director for the concert series on Latin American music sponsored by the American Composers Orchestra (ACO). She cited a historical precedent for the series in the interest by North Americans in Latin American music during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. However, this interest ebbed in the 1960s with the heightening of North-South political tensions. León would like to see the interest in Latin works rekindled. She was instrumental in organizing the American Composers Orchestra’s Sonidos de las Americas—Sounds of the Americas—festival, which first took place in February of 1994 in New York City. As early as 1991, she and ACO Managing Director Jesse Rosen had traveled to Central and South America to search out new sounds. “We met with composers, with leaders in contemporary music in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico,” León recounted to Octavio Roca of Symphony Magazine. “The first thing we realized is just how much is out there—and how rich the variety.” With such diverse music available, León and Rosen decided to focus the first of what is to be an annual festival on the music of Mexico. By festival time, they had organized, with the help of the Mexican Cultural Institute and the cooperation of Carnegie Hall, concerts, symposia, and master classes dealing with the works of Mexican composers. Calling the festival “long overdue,” León voiced her aspirations to Roca. “Maybe in future years more orchestras can model programs after this one, and we will have a new movement of interconnections between countries, so that whole communities of composers can be known. Now that the door is open, this program can continue.” León plans for future festivals to spotlight the music of other Latin American countries.
León’s composing process seems to mirror her life in its complexity. Like all creative activity, composing is a process of bringing together disparate elements to create a whole. “My ideas have to do with my present,” León told a Symphony Magazine reporter. “They come when I least expect it, in the street, sitting at home, in the car. Ideas start tapping in anywhere, anytime. They wake me up and all of a sudden I’m hearing an entire orchestra playing something.” The composer keeps a notebook available to jot down her ideas as they come. She can be inspired by such varied events as a visit to a museum or getting stuck in a traffic jam. León collects these varied musical ideas, which she crafts into a commissioned work based on the parameters of the piece. She prefers to work on a single composition at a time.
One commission seemed so daunting at first that León almost turned it down—an opera. “When I had the invitation to write an opera, I almost slammed down the telephone. I just couldn’t deal with it,” the composer was quoted as saying in the I.S. A.M. Newsletter. Fortunately León reconsidered for the award-winning Scourge of Hyacinths was the result. Adapted from a radio play by Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, the opera deals with the plight of three political prisoners in an unnamed dictatorship. The fate of the prisoners is linked to a goddess of the native Yoruban religion, the music of which León remembered from her childhood. The hyacinths represent corruption and literally and figuratively prevent the protagonists from escaping their horrible fate. The opera’s 12 quick scenes play continuously, with Leon’s lightly orchestrated and highly rhythmic music propelling the action. León herself conducted the premier performances in Munich, Germany, in May of 1994. For Scourge of Hyacinths, she won the BMW Prize for Best Composition at the Munich Biennale for New Music Theater.
Winning prizes is nothing new for León. She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Copland Fund, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which have allowed for recordings to be made of her works. Indigena, a compact disc of Leon’s chamber music was released on the CRI label in 1994. A compact disc that includes Bata and Carabali is available from the Louisville Orchestra’s First Edition Records. Other pieces can be found on the Albany Records, Newport Classic, Leonarda, and Mode labels.
Considering herself a global citizen, León does not like to be categorized by race or gender. “I have come to a place where I have no citizenship and I have a global consciousness,” she once told Ear Magazine. And as a global citizen, she desires to bridge the gap between Latin American and European music, a lofty—some would say impossible—aspiration. Yet León is not easily deterred from pursuing her goals. “My chosen purpose in life is to be a musician, a composer, a conductor,” she told Lundy. “This is the way I am making my contribution to mankind” and for these contributions she wishes to be judged.
(With Arthur Mitchell) Tones (ballet), 1970.
The Beloved (ballet), 1972.
(With Goeffrey Holder) Dougla (ballet), 1974.
(With Wendy Kesselman) Maggie Magalalita (play), 1980.
(With Robert Wilson) The Golden Windows (play), 1982.
Bata (orchestra), 1985.
Heart of Ours (chorus and chamber orchestra), 1988.
To and Fro (mezzo-soprano and piano), 1990.
Carabali (orchestra), 1992.
Scourge of Hyacinths (opera), 1994.
Para viola y Orquesta (viola and orchestra), 1995.
Hechizos (chamber orchestra), 1995.
The Western Wind: Satires, Ballads & Bop, Newport Allegro, 1992.
Indigena, CRI, 1994.
Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, eighth edition, Schirmer, 1992.
Cohen, Aaron I., International Encyclopedia of Women Composers, Volume 1, second edition, Books & Music, 1987.
Kanellos, Nicolás, Hispanic-American Almanac, Gale, 1993.
The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, W.W. Norton, 1995.
Southern, Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982.
American Record Guide, July/August 1992, p. 279; January/February 1995, p. 48.
Black Perspective in Music, fall 1988, pp. 213-225.
Cincinnati Enquirer, January 19, 1992, p. B4.
Ear Magazine, 1986-1987, p. 16; January 1989, pp. 12-13; October 1989, p. 32; April 1991, pp. 21-29.
Ebony, February 1989, pp. 54-62.
I.S.A.M. Newsletter, fall 1933, pp. 9-10; spring 1995, p. 2.
Musical Opinion, June/July/August 1994, p. 211.
New York Times, December 10, 1991, p. C19.
Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, 1988, pp. 581-582.
Opera, festival 1994, pp. 101-102.
Peer-Southern Concert Music, fall 1992, pp. 1-2; winter 1994-95, p. 4.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 10, 1994, p. E3.
Symphony Magazine, 1988, p. 27; October 1991, p. 29; May/June 1994, pp. 38-44.
—J. M. Lesinski
"León, Tania 1943–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 13, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/leon-tania-1943
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