Composer Tania León on Her Carnegie Hall Residency | Playbill

Related Articles
Classic Arts Features Composer Tania León on Her Carnegie Hall Residency

The Cuban-born composer is this season's Debs Composer's Chair.

Tania León with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Andris Nelsons (right) at the start of her Carnegie Hall residency last January Chris Lee

Tania León’s achievements as a composer, conductor, educator, and advocate are singular. Since moving from Havana in the late 1960s, she has become one of New York’s most irrepressible forces in arts and culture, including her roles as Dance Theatre of Harlem’s first music director, new music advisor at the New York Philharmonic, co-founder of Sonidos de las Américas with the American Composers Orchestra, and founder and artistic director of the commissioning, presenting, and advocacy organization Composers Now. Her recent milestones include the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music, being named a 2022 Kennedy Center honoree, Northwestern University’s 2023 Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, and Spain’s 2023 Tomás Luis de Victoria prize.

As holder of the 2023–2024 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, Tania León shares her music and expertise with audiences and the next generation of artists following in her footsteps

What was your initial reaction to being appointed the Debs Composer’s Chair? 
Tania León: 
To be invited to be the Debs Composer’s Chair was unbelievable. Carnegie Hall was one of the first buildings I saw upon my arrival in New York. It had an aura of legend in my life. I think Carnegie Hall is the destination that every artist looks forward to. I remember the first piece of mine that was played in the Main Hall [now Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage]. It was the 4th of December, 1988, and it was Kabiosile, a piece I wrote for piano and orchestra that was premiered by Ursula Oppens and conducted by Dennis Russell Davis with the American Composers Orchestra. I will never forget that. For me, it was a big thing—I even got a copy of the concert poster and gave it to my mother in Havana.

What was a pivotal experience that inspired you as an artist?
One of the things I really like is the element of surprise. When I first moved to New York City, I was living in a building on the East Side at the outskirts of El Barrio. One day this young fellow from Asia knocked on my door, holding his clarinet. He knew I was a pianist and wanted to show me that he was a musician, too. But neither of us spoke the other’s language. But he played his clarinet for me, and we quickly became friends. Later on, he returned with a vinyl record that happened to be of the great pianist Art Tatum. That was really my introduction to jazz. It was something so different than what I had been learning as a concert pianist. And then I found out that Tatum was blind, which really blew me away. It taught me that the possibilities are truly endless.

How is it that you made the change from being a concert pianist to embracing composition?
I went to Harlem to play for ballet lessons as a substitute pianist on behalf of one of my classmates at New York University. While I was there, a man came looking for a space to rent to start a project he had in mind. Two weeks later, somebody called me on his behalf to start playing for other dance projects. All of a sudden, I was at Lincoln Center at a New York City Ballet performance and I saw him on stage, which is where I first learned his name: Arthur Mitchell. And from him, I met George Balanchine. And then I found out that Igor Stravinsky—one of the musicians I admired in the world of composition—wrote ballets for Arthur. That these things could happen from moment to moment—that you could actually meet people who change the course of your life—was what sealed my destiny as a composer, which is how I first ended up composing for Arthur Miller’s Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Had you previously considered composing for dance?
I was born in a culture where dance is very important. If you don’t go to dance in a dancehall or in a park or something like that, you create a dance space inside your home—you move your furniture, turn on the radio or a recording, and start dancing. That’s how I grew up. So getting to write things with movement—be it ballet, musical theater, or opera—was very easy for me because that’s part of my roots. I’m a musician who composes, so I don’t limit myself to format or style. The only thing I haven’t done is be involved with a circus like Cirque du Soleil.

Are there any hallmarks specific to American music?
American music is a blend of so many things. It attracts musicians of the world who get inspired by the culture and then start creating here. So American music is hard to define because in a way it’s global. There’s a certain energy here that everyone wants to be part of. It’s a mecca of creativity and imagination—and it has to do with the influx of musicians from all over.

Throughout history, what would you say is the role of the composer?
Composers narrate from century to century. They are narrating our activities and the growth of society step by step. I always love working with emerging composers because these are the voices that are going to continue our narrative. Encouraging young composers to express themselves and the way our society impacts them is vital for the health of the music we are now building.

This season, your works have been performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Connect, and Alarm Will Sound. Later this spring, your residency continues with Ensemble Modern and the David Virelles Nosotros Ensemble featuring Dafnis Prieto. Is there a specific theme?
There’s a thread between the stories behind each piece of mine being performed, each soloist, each ensemble, each orchestra and what unites all of us, which is the arts speaking to each other in relationship to dance, in relationship to musical theater, in relationship to opera, in relationship to everything. All of these are part of my vocabulary and part of me as a musician. It’s a manifestation of a language that we know. I am very excited to continue having that dialogue.

Learn more at

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!