Tania Leon: Afro Latina Composer

Tania Leon is a world-renowned Afro Latina conductor, composer, educator, and advisor to the arts from Havana, Cuba. Leon studied at the National Conservatory in Cuba and later moved to New York City, New York. As far as compositions are concerned, Leon is no rookie. She has composed a classical opera called Scourge of Hyacinths, which is based on a play by Wole Soyinka. The drama is about a Nigerian man who is accused of committing a crime he did not commit, but looses his life for it. Her opera was commissioned by Hans Werner Henze and the city of Munich for the Fourth Munich Biennale, and won the BMW Prize. Leon has composed six ballets, ten mixed genre musical pieces, over thirty-five instrumental ensembles, over twenty instrumental solo pieces, over fifteen vocal ensemble pieces and two theatre works. Her list of compositions reaches well over one hundred fifty.

Leon’s conducting resume is quite extensive as well. She has conducted a very wide range of musical ensembles including, but not limited to, the Juilliard Orchestra (1971), The Wiz on Broadway (1977-78), New York Shakespeare Theater (1987-88), Puerto Rico Symphony, Dance Theatre of Harlem: Kennedy Center (1991), New York University Orchestra (2004), Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra (2015), and the list goes on.

Leon has shared her skills in the form of education at Harvard University and University of Humboldt in Berlin: Mosse Lecture Series. Leon was also chosen as an Andrew Mellon Distinguished Scholar at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa. She also had the honor of being a Visiting Professor at Yale University. Leon is clearly recognized as a composer to be held in extremely high regard by several prestigious foundations and universities.

Several foundations and organizations have commissioned Leon, one being for her opera, Little Rock Nine, with a libretto by Thulani Davis, and for historical research by Louis Henry Gates, Jr., commissioned by the University of Arkansas’ College of Fine Arts and Communication. These specific commissions were extremely interesting to me being that I am from Little Rock, Arkansas and actually attended Central High School where the Little Rock Nine integrated. This fact shows the dedication to arts that Arkansans natives have.

In addition to being a composer, conductor, and educator, Leon has is also a founder of several organizations. She is a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Founder/ Art Director of the Composers Now Festival: a non-profit in New York City dedicated to empowering all living composers, while celebrating the diversity of their voices and honoring the significance of their contributions to the cultural fabric of society. She serves the New Music Advisor to the New York Philharmonic, and the Latin American Advisor to the American Composers Orchestra. Leon also instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series.

For her outstanding accomplishments she has been awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, NYSCA, the Lila Wallace/ Readers Digest Fund, ASCAP, and Meet the Composer. She was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize: Acana, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Tania Leon has accomplished a number of great things in her lifetime and she still has years to go. I think it is very important to make note of global, black musicians who have made a huge impact on the Classical Music Community, because it allows for representation of black artists. Representation matters in how black musicians are portrayed to the world, and her efforts should not go unnoticed. For this fact, I greatly appreciate her efforts to recognize the diversity in American composers and her work as a musician.


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