Tania Leon Wins 2021 Pulitzer for Music

Stride Premiered by the NY Philharmonic Before Pandemic Struck

By: - Jun 12, 2021

Tania León has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music.  We heard an enticing performance of her Acuna with The Orchestra Now from Bard College in April.  We noted:  The program first offered Tania Leon’s Acana. Cuba is León's country of birth and its dance rhythms and percussive beats are heard throughout the work. Like her mentor, Leonard Bernstein, native sounds make up the varying textures and motifs of the work. The Acana is a 90 foot tree with wide-spreading roots. The music pictures life, particularly birdsong, weaving through the branches with the wind. 

The New York Philharmonic notes in the premier described the arc of her career and the impact of her music.

"Having studied piano since the age of four and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music (plus a certification in accounting!), Tania León left Cuba as a refugee in 1967, transported to Miami on one of the Freedom Flights that expedited the mass migration from that country. She settled in New York City, where she studied with composer Ursula Mamlok and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees again, this time from New York University.

León staked her place in New York’s cultural scene as a founding member and music director of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969. Five years later, she instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert series. From 1994 to 2001 she served as Latin American music adviser for the American Composers Orchestra, where she co-founded the groundbreaking Sonidos de las Américas festivals in response to the increasing importance of Latin America in the cultural life of the United States and to encourage US orchestras and ensembles to broaden their repertoire to reflect that development. She is also the founder and artistic director of Composers Now, which is dedicated to empowering living composers and celebrating the diversity of their voices.

At the New York Philharmonic she was New Music Advisor from 1993 to 1997. During those years she conducted the Orchestra and appeared as an onstage moderator for pre-concert events. Conducting engagements have also taken her to the Beethovenhalle Orchestra (Bonn), Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Santa Cecilia Orchestra (Rome), National Symphony of South Africa (Johannesburg), New World Symphony (Miami), and Netherlands Wind Ensemble, among many other ensembles.

A professor at Brooklyn College and at the CUNY Graduate Center, she was named Distinguished Professor of the City University of New York in 2006. In 2010 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her many honors include the ASCAP Victor Herbert Award and the New York Governors’ Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2012 she received both Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. 

León’s catalogue extends to almost 40 chamber works, 10 orchestral pieces, and 6 ballets, in addition to numerous vocal compositions and pieces for piano. Her opera Scourge of Hyacinths, based on a radio play by Wole Soyinka, was awarded the BMW Prize for Best Composition of the Munich 1994 Biennale for New Music Theatre when presented there in a production staged by Robert Wilson and conducted by León herself; since then, it has received many performances in Switzerland, Austria, France, and Mexico. She is currently at work on another opera, Little Rock Nine, to a libretto by Thulani Davis (consulting with historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) about the integration of Arkansas’s public schools."

Her music has been performed widely around the world, but Cuba proved a tough nut to crack. Not until 2010, 43 years after she emigrated, was León’s music heard in her native country. That year she was officially invited to travel to Havana to hear two of her compositions presented as part of the Leo Brouwer Festival of Chamber Music. In 2016 she again returned to Cuba, as both a composer and conductor, leading the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba in her large-ensemble work Indígena.

When she was invited to write a piece for the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19, which has commissioned 19 women to compose works marking the centenary of the 19th Amendment (which gave American women the right to vote), León started researching the pioneering feminist Susan B. Anthony. She said: 

I read her biography, her statements. To me it was tremendous to see the inner force that she had. Then I started looking for a title before starting the piece — not the way I always do it. [It reflected] the way that I imagined her as a person who did not take “no” for an answer. She kept pushing and pushing and moving forward, walking with firm steps until she got the whole thing done. That is precisely what Stride means. Something that is moving forward.