Tania León Is a 2022 Kennedy Center Honoree

July 21, 2022

The accolade follows a 2021 Pulitzer Prize for the acclaimed composer, conductor, and longtime professor of music.  

Tania Leon at work
Tania León conducts members of ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) and members of YOLA (the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles), who performed her work “Pa'lante” at Disney Hall in 2016. (Photo credit: Craig Mathew)

She won a Pulitzer Prize last year, and this year, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Tania León (GC/Brooklyn, Music) is a Kennedy Center honoree. She joins artists Gladys Knight, George Clooney, Amy Grant, and U2, who will be recognized for their lifetime achievements at a televised event in December.

Born in Havana, Cuba, León has achieved acclaim as a composer, conductor, and educator. Her orchestral work Stride, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, merited the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

“Little did I imagine when studying in La Habana that life was going to grace me with such a distinction!” she said in a statement. “My first thoughts went to my ancestors: They believed in my dreams, and what we lacked in material wealth, they made up for in spirit, encouragement, and support.”

León, who recently retired from the faculty, has inspired countless students, including Latina composer Angélica Negrón, who came to the Graduate Center to study with León and is now gaining recognition for her own work.

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León received considerable press for her opera Little Rock Nine, which was commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The New York Times called it a "musical tapestry of jazz, gospel and snippets of ragtime."

She was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and a United States Artists fellow in 2018 and previously received the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement award.

León was a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 and served as its first musical director. From 1993 to 1997, she was the new music advisor to Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic.

At a two-day symposium hosted by the Graduate Center Music program last April, friends, colleagues, and collaborators paid tribute to Leon’s artistry and teaching legacy.

When she received the call about the Kennedy Center honor, León couldn’t get out of her chair, she told The New York Times. “I hung up,” she said to the Times. “I was like, ‘this is not happening. No, no, no, this is not happening.’ It’s sort of a reaction that you’re in disbelief of what you hear.”

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