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2023 Valedictory Ceremony Dorothy Height Awardee: Tania León (BS ’71, MM ’75)


Born in Havana, Cuba, Tania León is a highly regarded composer, conductor, educator, and advisor to arts organizations.

A lover of music from a very young age, her grandmother had enrolled her in a musical conservatory in Cuba when she was just four years old.

After she immigrated to the US in 1967, she found herself at NYU somewhat by accident.

Eight-year-old Tania León practicing the piano at her home in La Habana, Cuba.

Eight-year-old Tania León practicing the piano at her home in La Habana, Cuba. Courtesy of Tania León.

“I had earned my undergraduate degree in music while in Cuba, but when I arrived here, I had to validate it at an American school,” says León, the first musician in her family.

“I originally intended to go to Paris to continue my training, but I received a scholarship from the New York College of Music, which merged with NYU while I was attending.”

León gained her undergraduate degree in piano from Steinhardt in 1971 before continuing to her Master of Music – with a bit of a change. In between the two degrees, Arthur Mitchell heard her playing piano and invited her to collaborate on the as-yet unnamed dance company he was starting. Soon, León became a founding member and the first music director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

“I was given the opportunity to create compositions for the company, and that’s how I started writing ballets,” says León. “Because of the necessity to know what composition was all about, I changed my focus.”

A black-and-white photograph of Tania León conducting the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Tania León conducts the Dance Theatre of Harlem (1980s). Photo by Marbeth.

During her master’s, León studied with Ursula Mamlok, a German-born composer teaching at NYU, an opportunity she calls “something spectacular.”

“We still talk today about needing to celebrate composers who happen to be women, but back then it was the 1970s and here was Ursula, giving me the tools I needed to learn to compose,” says León. “Fate put me in touch with people like her and Miriam Gideon, who were breaking that glass ceiling.”

After completing her degree, León toured internationally as a conductor with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She then began touring with Laszlo Halasz, the first music director of the New York City Opera; she also conducted “The Wiz” on Broadway.

A headshot of Tania Leon, a smiling, dark-skinned woman in a red blazer.

Photo from Gail Hadani.

In the late 1970s, she co-founded the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series – a collection of outdoor concerts throughout the borough– which gave her an opportunity to fulfill her passion to support new and upcoming composers.

“It’s so important to honor living composers from all over,” says León. “They are writing the documents that describe the music of our time to the next century.”

León has continued this thread of making space for composers from different backgrounds. In the early 1990s, she became the new music advisor for the New York Philharmonic; she made her Philharmonic-conducting debut in 1997, marking the first time the orchestra was conducted by a Black woman. 

In 1994, she co-founded the American Composers Orchestra’s “Sonidos de las Americas Festival,” which curated performances in the US and abroad with composers from six different countries: Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba. In a personal connection, one of the Cuban composers was her old piano teacher.

Tania León acknowledges the audience’s applause after the world premiere of her Stride. In the background is the New York Philharmonic.

Tania León acknowledges the audience’s applause after the world premiere of her Stride, on February 13, 2020, in David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. Photo by Chris Lee.

León is also the founder and artistic director of Composers Now, a presenting, commissioning, and advocacy organization for living composers. One of their latest undertakings is the Composers Now Second Stage Project (CNSS), which gives mentoring and performance opportunities to young composers, with funding from the Toulmin Foundation.

Among her many honors, from Grammy nominations to prestigious fellowships, León received a Distinguished Alumni Award from NYU in 1994. More recently, she was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her orchestral work Stride; the piece was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women in the US the right to vote. In 2022, León was named a recipient of the 45th Annual Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime artistic achievements. 

Beginning this year, León will concurrently hold the composer-in-residence position at the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall.

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