Monday, February 10, 2020

SERGIO MIMS: The New York Times: A Composer Puts Her Life in Music, Beyond Labels

TANIA LEON Credit...Caroline Tompkins for The New York Times.


The Sunday New York Times this weekend has a profile on composer/conductor Tania Leon, her life, career and work.

A Composer Puts Her Life in Music, Beyond Labels


She was supposed to end up in Paris. When the composer Tania León was 9, her piano teacher, traveling in France, sent a postcard back to Cuba with a picture of the Eiffel Tower. “I don’t know what happened to me when I saw the card,” Ms. León, now 76, said recently. “I went to my family, and I said, ‘This is where I’m going to live.’ And I became obsessed.
  • few years earlier, her intrepid grandmother had marched her to the
    local music conservatory in Havana and demanded that she be enrolled.
    They didn’t usually take students so young, but Ms. León already showed
    promise: Even at 4, she would press against the radio at home, dancing
    to salsa and singing along, with perfect pitch, to the classical salsa station

    Following rigorous, European-style conservatory training, and inspired by her teacher’s postcard, the young pianist set her sights on France, intent on becoming a touring virtuoso and helping lift her family out of poverty. After
    years of waiting, she landed a free flight to the United States through a
    resettlement program. In 1967, at 24, Ms. León left for Miami, intending to travel on to Europe.

    But right before boarding the plane she learned that she would not be
    permitted to return to Cuba, and upon entering the United States, she
    discovered that she would have to stay at least five years before she
    could apply for citizenship. She was trapped, a citizen of nowhere.
    “That’s how I arrived: already traumatized,” Ms. León recalled.

    But she soon reached New York, where she began carving out an unusually varied artistic path and resisting, even at a time of increasing focus on
    multiculturalism, the identity-based labels — “black composer,” “female
    conductor” — that others sought to attach to her.

    She eventually served as the New York Philharmonic’s new-music adviser in the mid-1990s. Although she curated the Philharmonic’s American Eccentrics series and conducted educational concerts, the orchestra, which had a weak record with composers of color at that time, stymied some of her projects and never actually played her music.
    But this week she finally arrives at the Philharmonic, with the premiere of her work “Stride,” to be performed on Feb. 13, 15 and 18, under Jaap van Zweden. The premiere is part of Project 19, a multiseason initiative in honor of the centenary of the 19th Amendment, that has commissioned works by 19 female composers. Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s executive director in the ’90s, returned as president and chief executive in 2017, and was eager to finally program Ms. León’s music.
    “Here we are,” Ms. Borda said in an interview, “coming back to an important artist and enfranchising her, over 20 years later.”

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