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Tania León changed the sound of being American

Composer Tania León, a Kennedy Center honoree, at her home in  Nyack, N.Y., on Oct. 14.
Composer Tania León, a Kennedy Center honoree, at her home in Nyack, N.Y., on Oct. 14. (Marvin Joseph/TWP)

The pioneering composer, conductor, educator, and now Kennedy Center honoree, has expanded the reach and meaning of classical music

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The beat must go on. Specifically, the one toward the end of the last section. That’s composer Tania León’s only note for the New York Philharmonic at a recent rehearsal in freshly finished David Geffen Hall, the air lightly perfumed with drywall, the hall quiet after a wild ride through “Stride.”

“Stride” is León’s Pulitzer Prize-winning contribution to “Project 19,” the Philharmonic’s ongoing initiative launched in 2020 marking the centennial of the 19th amendment (women’s right to vote) with 19 commissions by women composers. The Kennedy Center honoree has been an unstoppable force in expanding the possibilities of what American “classical” music can — and ought to — sound like.

“Stride” is a propulsive, arresting stretch of music that takes the pioneering suffragist Susan B. Anthony as its subject and muse. It’s also a perfect musical ambassador for León, a musician, composer, conductor, educator and advocate whose life could be described much the same way the Pulitzer committee did “Stride”: “a musical journey full of surprise.”

Since arriving in the United States from Cuba as a 24-year-old refugee, León, 79, has become one of the most essential voices in American classical music — though that word captures only a single dimension of her compositional voice. Over her prolific 50-year career, León has composed orchestral, chamber and choral works, and operas and ballets — music that draws partially from decades of classical training, but most potently from her own sharp musical instincts, which fuse the rhythms and colors of the folk music she grew up listening to in Havana with a mesmerizing modernism.

As the founder of such influential concert series as the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in 1978, the Sonidos de las Américas Festival in the ’90s, and Composers Now today, León affords new music the same import we more automatically assign contemporary art or literature. She sees no reason composers shouldn’t be active contributors to the cultural conversation.

“The sounds of our time are reflected in the music that living composers are creating,” she tells me after rehearsal at a cafe just outside Lincoln Center. “It’s our reaction to society.”

León is a boundless creative spirit whose work has intersected with dance, visual art and literature. She has collaborated with poets and writers, including Margaret Atwood, John Ashbery, Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kincaid, Rita Dove, Fae Myenne Ng and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate on whose radio play León based her 1994 opera “Scourge of Hyacinths.”

But León’s music also carries the stamp of an artist unfazed by boundaries and borders — whether between genres or eras of music, or countries and the people who make them up. Her career has been one long exercise in defying categorization.

“I’m not supposed to look this way, I’m supposed to be in classical music, I’m not supposed to conduct,” she says. León’s heritage extends beyond Cuba into French, Spanish, Chinese, African lineages. A recent biography, “Tania León’s Stride” by Alejandro L. Madrid, honors León’s rejection of identity markers that she has experienced as pigeonholes — i.e. “Black composer,” “female composer,” “Afro-Cuban composer.”

“I don’t call myself anything but my name,” she says. “My philosophy? Every country is a neighborhood. My identity is human.”

More than most, León understands the importance of introducing more diversity into the world of orchestral music. But she’s also frustrated and fascinated by the ease with which people freely foreground the matter of her identity over the substance of an artist’s work.

It’s a lesson she has passed on to her students, such as composer Angélica Negrón, who studied composition with León at CUNY’s Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, where León taught until 2019. Originally from Puerto Rico and now based in New York City, Negrón counts León’s lessons in navigating orchestral music as essential to her lessons in composing it.

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“In one of her first classes,” Negrón says, “she said to me, ‘You’re Latina, you’re a woman, you’re very talented, but just know that you’re checking two boxes, and a lot of people are gonna want to work with you just because of that.’ ”

León speaks from experience. Madrid’s book documents an incident when a fellow professor at Brooklyn College interrupted her paper-grading to opine that she’d acquired her position due to her color and not her talent. “I exploded in a faculty meeting and told them I was not going to put up with those things,” she told Madrid.

Her career success has not been slowed by such encounters. But it’s hard to imagine that her music — a bold, genre-fluid force of nature that goes where it pleases — isn’t a response, an attempt to embody the universal in sound.

Born in Havana in 1943, Tania Justina León Ferran was raised in the home of her paternal grandmother, Mamota, who, after noticing the way 4-year-old Tania sought classical music signals on the family radio, enrolled her and her younger brother Oscar José in music lessons: piano, theory and solfège (the do-re-mi method of ear training).

León followed a strict French curriculum at the Peyrellade Conservatory in Havana, and by age 9 was studying privately with pianist Edmundo López — who, in 1952, sent León an impactful postcard from Paris: a photo of the Eiffel Tower, which sparked what Oscar José (who would go on to sing opera) described as León’s “obsession” to leave.

This longing was exacerbated by the political revolution in Cuba. Fidel Castro and his barbudos (bearded revolutionaries) had triumphed and entered Havana in early January 1959. In Madrid’s biography, León recalls playing records of Chopin to drown out Castro’s voice on the radio.

Determined to make her way to Paris, León graduated from the conservatory in 1960. But without a scholarship (and unmoved by suggestions from the Cuban ambassador to France that she study in Poland instead), León enrolled in an accounting program, earned a degree and ended up pushing papers at the same office where Mamota worked.

Off hours, León tried to keep up with her music. She took lessons with Zenaida Manfugas at the Garcia Caturga Conservatory and started composing short works while deepening her knowledge of Cuban music alongside such peers as Paquito D’Rivera and Marta Valdés.

León finally left Cuba in 1967 on a “Freedom Flight” — an “air-bridge” program established by the Cuban and U.S. governments under President Lyndon B. Johnson to accommodate the influx of political refugees. For León, it represented less an escape from Cuba than a free flight to the States, and the first step to Paris.

As León went to board the plane to Miami, she handed her passport to a Cuban immigration officer who, much to León’s surprise, annulled it on the spot. León was suddenly between countries in two senses, a citizen of neither, speaking no English and with few leads on what would come next.

Once in Miami, León acquired assistance from a Catholic church and swiftly relocated to New York City, where friends put her up and the potential for more opportunities awaited. She visited the American Council for Emigres in the Professions and, after an impromptu piano performance, secured an audition at the New York College of Music (later to become part of New York University).

Mere months after arriving in the States, León enrolled that fall. She took crash courses in English, broadened her studies and graduated in 1971.

But it was in 1968 that a chance encounter turned León’s path in an unexpected direction. When a pianist friend from school fell ill and couldn’t accompany the ballet class she had planned, León agreed to fill in and rushed to Harlem’s St. James Presbyterian Church.

There, she met impressed ballet dancer and impresario Arthur Mitchell, with whom she struck up an instant rapport. Two weeks later, she became pianist and music director of Mitchell’s newly formed Dance Theatre of Harlem. She assembled the company’s diverse orchestra, began composing ballets and started refining her unique compositional voice, scoring such works as “Tones” (1970-1971) and “Haiku” (1973) as well as collaborations with dancer Geoffrey Holder, including “Dougla” (1974, for two flutes and percussion) and “Belé” (1981, for percussion and strings). Holder would later invite León to conduct and music-direct “The Wiz” for its last four years on Broadway.

With Dance Theatre of Harlem, León toured the Caribbean and finally made it to Europe — though not without repeated troubles stemming from the “advance parole document” on which she had to depend for international travel in lieu of a passport. In 1973, León acquired U.S. citizenship.

In 1976, Brooklyn Philharmonic maestro Lukas Foss brought León on to lead its Community Concert Series, with composers Talib Hakim and Julius Eastman. The series brought contemporary works by young, largely minority composers into New York neighborhoods through public performances conducted by León — at prisons, colleges, hospitals, parks, gymnasiums and sculpture gardens. It was through these performances that Leon secured a spot in 1985 on the faculty of CUNY’s Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, León spent more than 13 years leading the series and advising the orchestra on Latin composers.

In 1993, her presence well-solidified in the city, León started what was to be a prestigious three-year composers fellowship at the New York Philharmonic, where the idea was for her to function as a “new music adviser” to the orchestra, and a foil of sorts against maestro Kurt Masur’s apparent disinterest in contemporary programming.

León was able to organize an ear-opening festival of “American Eccentrics,” featuring a lineup of avant-garde all-stars, including John Cage, Pauline Oliverors and Conlon Nancarrow. But she also languished: By the end of her second year at the Phil, León hadn’t led the orchestra once, had none of her works performed, had none of her suggestions for commissions taken up. She was growing frustrated.

As pressure from inside and outside of Avery Fisher Hall started to build, León began to question what she was actually doing there, and how her identity might shape and steer her career — unless she took control.

“Having a Latin woman of color may have looked very nice,” she told Madrid in 2018, “but the fact is I was not satisfied as an artist.”

Much of León’s career since has been split between creating the music she wants to hear, and creating the world she wants to see for musicians faced with the same barriers, boundaries and burdens of identity.

In 1994, two years shy of leaving the Phil, León collaborated with the American Composers Orchestra to launch the Sonidos de las Américas Festival, a massive endeavor far more reflective of León’s interest in young composers and nontraditional sounds, involving hundreds of artists that extended into six editions and more than 60 concerts. She was the orchestra’s Latin American music adviser until 2001.

In 2010, she founded Composers Now, an organization that provides commissioning, mentoring, residency and performance programs for composers, and continues to present an annual month-long festival of new music, which León considers a keystone of her legacy.

“I think that new music can be difficult for people because there’s two ways of listening,” she says. “One way is just hearing, the other one is listening, and listening is internal.”

Personal quests and persistence

That idea stays with me later that evening when the Philharmonic takes the stage to officially inaugurate David Geffen Hall with a program of largely contemporary works — Marcos Balter’s “Oyá,” John Adams’s “My Father Knew Charles Ives,” and León’s “Stride” (with Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” as a bracing closer).

A lot goes on in “Stride” — strings climb in frenzied ascents, percussion rumbles underfoot, clangorous chimes ring overhead and cascading trumpets call an invisible army to order. The music is filled with the sounds of chants and marches, clarion horns and stomping feet — the sounds of progress.

But so much of the magic in León’s music is about internal listening — an alchemy of associations and echoes. If the music feels personal to you, it’s because it’s personal to her.

“After 12 years away, I went back,” she says of her first return to Cuba in 1979. “I brought the music that I had recorded [here] before I left. And when he heard it, my father said, ‘Yes … it’s very interesting — but where are you in your music?’ ”

León says she is still not entirely sure what her father meant, and he died before she had a chance to ask. But her sense is that he detected a certain spirit missing — or perhaps it was just hidden in the compositional soundness of her music.

Step back a bit from “Stride” and its ostensible subject, and you could read it as an autobiography of sorts. León wanted to write a piece about moving forward even when all the odds push against you, about never giving up, and “Stride” rises to the occasion, with its depiction of a hard-fought journey, its sonic enactment of grit and drive. Here and there, the music models the reliably slow plod of justice, but within the march there’s a dance. León’s spirit animates the music. The artist is alive and present.

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León’s music even evokes elements of her teaching practice. She’s known to have students meticulously copy manuscripts of old scores as a way to enter a composer’s imagination, inhabit their rhythmic sensibilities — right down to the movement of their hand across the page.

Negrón originally wanted to study with León for her renowned mastery of polyrhythmic textures, which themselves can present externally as slow and lilting, but internally buzz with complex systems of interlocking rhythm. It’s music with a private life.

“The Caribbean rhythms are there,” Negron says, “but it’s not about that. It’s about something way deeper — more of a sensibility than an homage or a nod or a reference to a specific style. Before studying with her, I thought I needed to sound Puerto Rican and wasn’t doing a good job at it. It was liberating to … figure out my own way of connecting to my own identity in a way that did not have any of the pressure or expectations of how I should sound.”

Today, León’s is still busy composing, leading Composers Now and sitting on the boards of MacDowell, the ASCAP Foundation and the New York Philharmonic. But she’s doing so from the relative quietude of Nyack, where regular visits to the shore and an ever-present horizon remind her of the importance of persistence, of reaching the next place, the next note, the next generation of composers. The beat must go on.

The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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