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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Tania León

Since arriving in the U.S. in 1967 at age 24, León has led a diverse career in the arts for the last five decades and continues to do so

 

Tania León, 79, has garnered international acclaim as a composer, conductor, educator, and advisor to arts organizations. She has composed close to 120 works including those for theater, voice, solo instruments, chamber ensembles, mixed genre, ballet, opera, and orchestra.

In 2022, she was a Kennedy Center Honoree for her contribution to American culture, and in 2021, received the Pulitzer Prize for her composition Stride — commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. The London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) will give the UK premiere of Stride on March 31, 2023.

León was also recently announced as the next LPO Composer-in-Residence, and Composer Mentor for the LPO Young Composers program, which supports emerging orchestral composers.

Born in 1943 in Havana, Cuba, León developed a fascination with music from as young as four years old, when she would often dance to songs on the radio and sing along with perfect pitch to pieces played on the classical station. 

 

Tania León, aged 8 (Image courtesy: NPR)

 

From a young age, she was receiving rigorous, European-style conservatory training from her piano teacher in Cuba. When she was nine, she received a postcard from her teacher in France with a picture of the Eiffel Tower. Inspired by the card, León set her sights on living in France as a piano virtuoso and helping her family financially. 

She went on to win three major competitions and earned degrees from Havana’s Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory in piano and music theory. She began trying to travel to France in earnest when she turned 17. 

“After struggling so many years, and finally getting the support of a family in Miami through the Catholic Church…I got a telegram telling me that I was to fly on the 29th of May,” León said in a recent interview with NPR. “And one of the things that happened boarding the plane — I didn't know that all of a sudden I was a citizen of the world, not a citizen of my country anymore.”

In 1967, at age 24, León left for Miami on a free flight to the U.S. through a resettlement program in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, expecting to continue her travels on to Europe. Her initial plans changed drastically when she found out that upon entering the U.S. she was required to stay at least five years before she could apply for citizenship. Furthermore, she was not permitted to return home to Cuba during this period. 

 

From left to right: Tania León, Karel Shook, and Arthur Mitchell - founders of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, looking at the score of León's first ballet, "Tones" (1969-1970), dedicated to her grandmother (Image courtesy: NPR)

 

The following year, in 1968, after stepping in for a pianist friend for a ballet class, León was appointed as resident composer and music director of Dance Theatre of Harlem — a new studio formed by dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell, the first soloist of color with the New York City Ballet, who was giving the class. Soon, famed ballet choreographers Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine were teaching León their repertoire. 

During her time in the U.S., she also received scholarships from and studied at New York University, The Juilliard School, and the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood.

As a conductor, she appeared with the Beethovenhalle Orchestra, Johannesburg’s National Symphony Orchestra, Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Chicago Sinfonietta, New York Philharmonic, Orquesta Sinfonica de El Salvador, Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra, and many more.

In the 1970s, she began composing large-scale, percussive dance works. Simultaneously, the Dance Theater of Harlem — also America’s first black classical ballet companydrew international acclaim, and its tours finally saw her arrive in Paris. In 1979, she was allowed to visit home through a Cuban government family reunification program.

 

TANIA LEÓN | BATÁ (1985) | FOUNDATION PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA | DAVID SNELL 

 

Additionally, León instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in 1978 and co-founded the American Composers Orchestra Sonidos de las Americas Festivals as the Latin American music advisor in 1994.

From 1993 to 1997, she was New Music Advisor to Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, and from 1994 to 2001, was the Latin American music advisor for the American Composers Orchestra. In 2010, she became the founder and artistic director of Composers Now, an organization empowering living composers and celebrating their diverse voices. 

As an educator, León has taught at Harvard University, Yale University, University of Michigan, University of Kansas, Purchase College, Hamburg’s Musikschule, and the Jazz Composer Orchestra Institute. In 2000, she was appointed professor of Music at Brooklyn College and has been a Distinguished Professor of the City University of New York since 2006.

 

TANIA LEÓN | INURA (2009) | SON SONORA VOICES AND ENSEMBLE | TANIA LEÓN 

 

Throughout her career, León continued to compose and in 2020, completed Stride as part of NY Phil’s “Project 19,” featuring commissions by female composers honoring the centenary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. The work was dedicated in honor of suffragist Susan B. Anthony and “to the visionaries Deborah Borda and Jaap van Zweden.”

“It’s the 100th anniversary (of the 19th Amendment),” León said at the time. “A lot of things have changed, a lot of things need to change, and that is my very personal comment,” she added about what her work represents. “That we’re celebrating something that was handicapped, and something that is still handicapped.”

 

PROJECT 19: THE NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC IN REHEARSAL FOR LEÓN’S “STRIDE” (2020)

 

León’s success blossomed from the encouragement she received from her family, in particular her grandmother. “I come from a very poor family, a family integrated by people of different cultures,” León told NPR. “But what we had in common was the fact that we were poor and dreaming of something that was virtually impossible.

Her many honors include the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement, inductions into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among others. Additionally, she holds honorary doctorate degrees from Colgate University, Oberlin, SUNY Purchase College, and the Curtis Institute of Music. In 2018, she received the United States Artists Fellowship, and in 2022, Chamber Music America’s National Service Award.

Currently, she serves as an honorary chair for the Recording Academy’s Songwriters & Composers Wing and is a Member of the Boards of Directors of the New York Philharmonic and The ASCAP Foundation.

“[León has] conducted the world renowned New York Philharmonic and worked with the Brooklyn Philharmonic to bring classical music beyond concert halls into city neighborhoods,” said President Joe Biden during the 2022 Kennedy Honors address. “She led symphonies in South Africa, from South Africa to Germany. A mentor and a professor, she champions new composers earning dozens of honors, her versatility, her vision, her defying labels, her deepening Latin American influence in classical music.”

A composer portrait of León can be viewed below.

 

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