Cuban-born Tania León has emerged as a vital personality on today’s music scene. She is highly regarded as a composer, pianist, and conductor and recognized for her accomplishments as an educator and advisor to arts organizations.
León cofounded the Dance Theatre of Harlem and is distinguished professor of music composition at Brooklyn College. She received her formal musical training at Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory in Havana, New York University, the Juilliard School, and the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood.
León integrates gospel, jazz, Latin American, and African elements into her technical compositions.
“Cultural clash is at the core of music by the composer Tania León…Naturally, these distinctive styles clash in her music, though in a dynamic sense, as in a good fight, a feisty confrontation,” wrote New York Times music reviewer Anthony Tommasini.
León received a 2010 Latin Grammy Award nomination for “To and Fro (4 MOODS),” performed by Nodus Ensemble, in the category of best classical contemporary composition.
In March 2009, the ballet Inura, with music composed by Tania León and choreographed by Carlos dos Santos, was premiered by Dance Brazil at Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Other recent premieres include:
- “Esencia para Cuarteto de Cuerdas,” commissioned by the Fromm Foundation for the Del Sol String Quartet.
- “Ácana” for orchestra, a joint commission, premiered by Orpheus at Carnegie Hall and the Purchase College Orchestra.
- “Ancients” for two sopranos and mixed ensemble, commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts for the Festival on the Hill 2008.
- “Alma” for flute and piano, commissioned by Marya Martin.
- “Atwood Songs” for soprano and piano with text by Margaret Atwood, commissioned by the Eastman School of Music and Syracuse University.
In March 2005, León joined forces with Nobel Prize–winner Wole Soyinka, with whom she collaborated on her award-winning opera Scourge of Hyacinths. Based on Soyinka’s Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, the new work celebrated the opening of the Shaw Center for the Performing Arts in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Collaborations with award-winning poets include “…or like a” with John Ashbery, “Love After Love” with Derek Walcott, “Singin’ Sepia and Reflections” with Rita Dove, “A Row of Buttons” with Fae Myenne Ng, and “Rezos” with Jamaica Kincaid.
Music educator, advocate, advisor
In 1969 León became a founding member and first music director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she established their music department, music school, and orchestra.
She instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in 1978 and in 1994 cofounded the American Composers Orchestra Sonidos de las Americas Festivals in her capacity as Latin American music advisor.
From 1993 to 1997 she was new music advisor to Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic.
León has been visiting lecturer at Harvard University and visiting professor at Yale University, the University of Michigan, the University of Kansas, Purchase College, the Musikschule in Hamburg, and the Jazz Composer Orchestra Institute. She was named the Claire and Leonard Tow Professor in Music at Brooklyn College in 2000 and has been Distinguished Professor of the City University of New York since 2006.
In March 2008, León served as U.S. Artistic Ambassador of American Culture in Madrid, Spain.
León has made appearances as guest conductor with the Beethovenhalle Orchestra, Bonn; the National Symphony Orchestra of Johannesburg, South Africa; the Netherlands Wind Ensemble; the Chicago Sinfonietta; and the New York Philharmonic. She has recently appeared as guest conductor with major symphony orchestras throughout Europe.
Honors and awards
León’s honors include a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship, the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and a New York City Council proclamation for personal achievements that reflected positively on the city. She has been awarded honorary doctorate degrees by Colgate University, Oberlin College, and Purchase College.
In 2010 León was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters for her compositions. She has also received composition awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, Meet the Composer, the Koussevitzky Foundation, and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), among others.
Composer portrait: Tania León