Something to Sing About

February 7, 2018

Professor Tania León, a celebrated composer and conductor, reflects on her latest accolade - a major award from United States Artists.

170924-LittleRockOpera-0240 tania leon
Distinguished Professor Tania León has been commissioned to compose
an opera about the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Last
fall, she attended the 60th anniversary of the event. 

Distinguished Professor Tania León (GC/Brooklyn, Music) has had another very good year. Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a proclamation declaring February 1, 2017, “Composers Now Festival Day,” for the organization León founded and directs to support contemporary composers throughout New York City and celebrate “the diversity of their voices.”

In September, the first excerpts of her opera, Little Rock Nine — based on the history of the African American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 — were previewed at a commemoration of the event held at the University of Central Arkansas. León is writing the opera with historical advisor Henry Lewis Gates and librettist Thulani Davis.

And, this past January, León’s distinguished career was acknowledged with a major award from United States Artists. In a long career rich with awards and recognition for composing, conducting, and music education, she says she was “very moved” by the latest, a $50,000 unrestricted prize, which has her looking back over her body of work and, as always, ahead to the future.  

In recognizing León, United States Artists highlighted work that has been called utterly distinctive. León began her musical training in Cuba and emigrated to the United States in 1967. Her compositions show her many influences, combining gospel, jazz, Latin American, and African elements.

She has composed for violin and “interactive computer” and a recent score, del Caribe, soy, included bird calls and whistles. The breadth of her work is apparent in her recent commissions, including Little Rock Nine, which combines jazz, gospel, and ragtime; and new works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and International Contemporary Ensemble.

León says that the United States Artists award has spurred her to start making some big plans, starting with working on her archive. There’s also a biography of León currently in the works.

León also sees a chance to shape the future. She wants to create a series of lectures or talks to inspire youngsters. She says too many groups of people are underrepresented in fields in which she is singled out. “We have a situation especially in classical music that, when they hear me or see me conduct, they’re still surprised. I want to encourage young people that any career in the arts is possible.”

Photo by Andrea Morales.