Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

Tania León

Tania León
photo by Michael Provost, courtesy Kaylor Management, Inc.

Tania León is one of the most vital personalities on today’s music scene. In demand as both a composer and a conductor, she has also been recognized for her significant accomplishments as an educator and as an advisor to arts organizations.

In January 1999, León’s opera Scourge of Hyacinths was given to great acclaim with ten performances by the Grand Théâtre de Genève; further performances were given in February and March by the Opéra de Nancy et de Lorraine in France and the St. Pölten Festspielhaus in Austria. Presented under the direction of Robert Wilson and conducted by the composer, the work is based on a radio play by Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. It was commissioned by the Munich Biennale in 1994, where it won the BMW Prize as best new work of opera theatre in the festival. The aria “Oh Yemanja” (Mother’s Prayer) from Scourge was recently released by Nonesuch on Dawn Upshaw’s CD The World So Wide.

León’s latest commission is an orchestral work for the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, to be premiered in June 1999. She recently finished “Bailarin” for the guitarist David Starobin, “Entre Nos” for Trio Neos, and a new work for the baritone Tom Buckner and ensemble. Her other recent commissions include Drummin’, a major multimedia work premiered at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami; Sol de Doce, for Chanticleer, on poems by Pedro Mir; and Singin’ Sepia, a song cycle collaboration with poet Rita Dove for the Continuum ensemble.

A brief discography of León’s music includes Indígena, a CD of León’s chamber music, released on CRI; the orchestral works Batá and Carabalí on the Louisville Orchestra’s First Edition Records; Rituál, a solo piano work, on Albany Records; an arrangement of the Cuban song “El Manisero” for Chanticleer on Teldec; and Journey for the Jubal Trio, also on CRI. Her music is also featured on the Newport Classic, Leonarda, Mode and Opus One labels.

A 1999 recipient of an Honorary Doctorate degree from Colgate University, León has received awards for her compositions from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, NYSCA, ASCAP, and Meet the Composer, among others. In 1998 she held the Fromm Residency at the American Academy in Rome; she has also been to Yaddo as a MacArthur Foundation Award winner and to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy.

Born in Havana, Cuba, León came to the U.S. in 1967. At the invitation of Arthur Mitchell, she became a founding member and the first musical director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, and founded the Dance Theatre’s music department, music school, and orchestra. She instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in 1978. Starting in 1993, she held a four-year position as New Music Advisor to Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. Currently, she serves as Latin American Music Advisor to the American Composers Orchestra, where she co-founded the award-winning Sonidos de las Americas festival. León has held masterclasses at the Hamburg Musikschule in Germany, and has been Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University and Visiting Professor of Composition at Yale University. A 1998 recipient of the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, León is a Professor at Brooklyn College, where she has taught since 1985.

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