“I am who I am, thanks to my mestizo heritage and my ancestors from China, Nigeria, France, and Spain. I’m a citizen of the world with a global consciousness, and I do not like to be categorized by race, gender, or nationality. My music is my contribution to mankind. This is my heritage and I’m proud of it.”- Tania León
Born to a family with few means in Havana, Cuba, León credits her upbringing for forcing her to become a hard worker and a collaborator. Her family’s purchase of a piano she later remarked as being “the best gift of [her] life,” as her musical talents were recognized early on. A student of music theory and piano performance, she began composing and studying boleros, bossa novas, and short pieces in the style of Cuban popular music. As a part of her conservatory education in Cuba, their classic cultural and local songs are taught with the same respect as Chopin, which instilled a pride and true appreciation of her culture’s music.
A recipient of the Freedom Flights program to encourage Cuban immigration to Miami, she relocated to the United States, eventually receiving a scholarship to attend NYU and composition with Ursula Mamok. She gained immediate success as a concert pianist, playing concertos with school orchestras and the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra in 1973, although she found the lifestyle of a concert pianist draining. León became frustrated by the countless hours she needed to practice her technique when all she wanted to do was play and create music. This drove her to focus her time and energy on conducting, and after subbing as a rehearsal pianist for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, was appointed the company’s first music director. In the eleven years she served that position, she wrote four ballets, and towards the end of her tenure began exploring music directing with other companies, including The Wiz and Godspell on Broadway. This vast experience as a director of ballet and musical theatre music, with a rich emphasis in American jazz and gospel, is what she cites as having a great influence on her work.
Afraid of what her New York audiences may think of her work as she began experimenting with composing, she strived to find her own authentic voice by drawing on her roots in Latin music, even traveling back home to reconnect with her roots. When she arrived back in America, she was finally fully able to combine all of her sonic influences from Havana and New York, and began to garner critical acclaim. Her first orchestral work, Concerto Criollo (1980), was commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, and she was the Resident Composer of the Lincoln Center Institute in 1985.
León is most known for her orchestral and piano works, having written commissions for the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the International Contemporary Ensemble, and the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19. As a composer of song, León has set music by poets of Latinx and American background, and has had collaborations with award-winning poets that include “… or like a” with John Ashbery, “Love After Love” with Derek Walcott, “Singin’ Sepia” and “Reflections” with Rita Dove, and “Atwood Songs,” with Margaret Atwood. She is a recipient of Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, the Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2018 United States Artists Fellowship, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
– Catherine Moore