5 Questions to Tania León (composer, conductor)

This sponsored article is part of a paid partnership with the Curtis Institute of Music.

Tania León’s ambition and passion for the arts means she rarely has downtime. Even before becoming the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, she was widely successful as an international guest conductor, esteemed educational mentor, and sought-after composer. Shortly after emigrating from Cuba in the late 60s, León became a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she directed the music school and orchestra. She took on a slew of roles once settled in the city: concert series curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, traveling university lecturer, and creator of the nonprofit organization Composers Now, to name a few. Concurrently, León continued her studies at a variety of institutions including New York University’s composition program, and Tanglewood, where she studied conducting under the tutelage of none other than Leonard Bernstein.

As a composer with an affinity for large ensemble and orchestral works, she is known for her narrative-driven writing and bold colors, including classical idioms tinged with elements of jazz, African American music vernaculars, and Latin/Afro-Cuban rhythmic gestures. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 2021, her Pulitzer Prize-winning work Stride celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution (granting some, but not all women the right to vote), and imagines the suffragettes’ resilient push for electoral power.

From 2021-2022, León took on a significant residency with the Curtis Institute of Music, which involved composition masterclasses, coaching performers on her works for a portrait concert, composing a new work for their contemporary ensemble, and speaking at commencement (where she was awarded an honorary doctorate). The culmination of her collaboration with the students took form in the song cycle In the Field, which premiered in February 2023. This season, León welcomes a residency with the London Philharmonic, and an appointment to the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall.

Congratulations on your recent residencies with the London Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall! Can you share some of the curatorial and compositional projects you’ll be working on with these organizations?

During my residency with the London Philharmonic this season, I’ll be mentoring the composers selected for the LPO’s Young Composers program, who are creating new works in collaboration with young choreographers. The choreographed pieces will comprise a concert of premieres that will be performed during the summer, and I will conduct the premieres. I am also creating new works for the orchestra and will be involved in community outreach.

At Carnegie, I have curated a series of concerts, including one for Ensemble Connect, an educational ensemble of young, talented instrumentalists that resides at Carnegie. Some of my works will be performed during the above-mentioned concerts, and there will be concerts in the park, as well. I will be addressing the audience during some of the concerts I’ve mentioned. Besides that, there will be a special talk between myself and Mitsuko Uchida that will invite the public to dialogue with us.

You were also composer-in-residence at the Curtis Institute of Music for their 2021-2022 season. What is your approach to working with musicians in educational settings, and how was your experience working with the students at Curtis?

My approach to working with young musicians is not different in any way than working with professional colleagues. My experience working with the students at Curtis was paramount! The students are so skilled and talented. I was tremendously inspired working with them. The memory of our interactions has lingered with me to this day.

Watch: The Curtis Institute’s Ensemble 20/21 performs In the Field by Tania León

Earlier this year, you returned to Curtis for the premiere of your song cycle by Ensemble 20/21. What was it like working with poet Carlos Pintado, and how do you approach setting text when working with living writers?

Working with poet Carlos Pintado has been and is sort of a dream; the song cycle I composed for Ensemble 20/21 marked our third collaboration. His words have a certain rhythmical syntax that I have become familiar with. I wrote poetry when I was a teenager, and I still feel very close to poetry and the written word. My love of these artforms may be the reason why I have collaborated with a number of poets and writers of our time.

Your former mentor (Bernstein) was quoted saying that the words “technique” and “communication” are “synonymous in conductors.” Is your compositional process influenced by or related to your experience as a conductor?

Sure — like the Maestro did, I think at length when transcribing my ideas to paper: what would be the easiest way for me to represent something, especially complex ideas? I think in depth about this approach when writing for bigger ensembles or orchestra.

Tania León -- Photo by Gail Hadani

Tania León — Photo by Gail Hadani

From your perspective, what do you see in the future of our field? What advice do you have for young people – especially young people of marginalized backgrounds – who are pursuing careers in music?

I am very enthusiastic about the future of the arts, especially the integration of musicians of our time, who are bringing to the plate many questions for us to proactively answer. I am also excited about the many genres of music that young musicians now want to learn from and experience, the flexibility with which they apply their technical powers, and the embrace of many musical interpretations due to the fact that there are so many composers writing in their own personal language… What can I say, there are many variables — the communities of young musicians, the music of our time — that are making this a very exciting moment that we have the privilege to hear, see, and experience.

As for artists of marginalized backgrounds, I have always been a proponent of accepting the new with open arms. There have been so many ways of preventing talent from being displayed in the same space that unfortunately, that attitude has created communities of people who are afraid to see each other and listen to each other. Talent is talent. Who said that in order to pursue a career in music, you have to have a certain pedigree that guarantees that you will get to Carnegie Hall? We must give opportunities to those who knock on doors looking for it. The history of the world is full of stories of humans who were marginalized and ended up on stage receiving a Nobel Prize.


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