Bien Hecho: Music, A Life Mission For Maestra De Léon de Vega

By Susna G. Baumann, Voxxi

In a male-dominated occupation, Maestra Sonia Marie De Léon de Vega not only has achieved distinction and admiration as a female symphony conductor and music director, but also for combining her two passions, her love for music and for her Latino community.

Based in Los Angeles, Mexican-American De León de Vega formed the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in 1992. It is the only orchestra in the country with the specific mission to attract and educate Latinos into classical music. Santa Cecilia Orchestra includes 12 Latino musicians in its 80-piece ensemble.

In 1998, she also launched “Discovering Music,” a two-year music education program that introduces classical music and orchestra instruments to Latino children in underserved districts.

The program is offered in 18 elementary schools in Los Angeles and has reached over 40,000 students since its inception. “Discovering Music,” has been so well received by children and educators that it has expanded to include a free-lesson program for elementary students to learn play the violin and a mentorship program in middle schools.

“Music is a beautiful tool to open communication with children in Los Angeles, and by putting instruments in their hands we take them away from the streets,” she said.

De Léon de Vega’s idea is to defeat stereotypes among the Latino community that only educated people enjoy classical music. Through their children, she engages parents to come to her concerts and get acquainted with classical music.

“The problem is not lack of interest but lack of access,” she said. “Usually these concerts are very expensive for the general public. We handle our concerts with reasonably priced subscriptions, donations and sponsorships.”

By means of her programs and concerts, De Léon de Vega hopes to open paths of communication, artistic expression and community understanding.

 “Our mission is to help bridge ethnic, social and cultural gaps to create stronger and intertwined communities, not only bringing music to Latinos, but also bringing Latino music to all audiences.”

With that purpose, she has included in Santa Cecilia Orchestra’s repertoire “Latinos Clásicos,” a selection of best classical Latino composers of our time, including Argentine musicians Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera, Mexican composers Carlos Chávez Ramírez and Arturo Márquez, and Cuban Yalil Guerra. “These composers and musicians have incorporated native and folkloric music or genres to their compositions so that Latino audiences can recognize passages of their beloved authors and popular music,” she said.

The mission of Santa Cecilia Orchestra and the Discovering Music program has captivated the attention of audiences as well as the sponsorship of several foundations and corporations. On the national level they are sponsored by the Annenberg Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts; and on a local level, by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles, among others. “I’m grateful to County Supervisor Gloria Molina for her continuous support to our programs and activities,” De León de Vega said.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, she is the daughter of actress and producer Sonia De León and singer and guitarist Reynaldo Sanchez. A precocious child who started playing piano at 5 years old, De Léon de Vega was soon enchanted by classical music. She pursued her music career and specialized in conducting studies with Dr. David Buck, trained at the Herbert Blomstedt International Institute for Instrumental Conductors and with Otto Werner Mueller, Maurice Abravanel, Pierre Boulez, Andre Previn, Zubin Metha and Ricardo Muti.

She has received numerous distinctions and awards including being the first woman in history to conduct a symphony orchestra during a Papal Mass at the Vatican. She was named as one of “Mujeres Destacadas Award in Art & Culture,” in 2011 by La Opinión, “Inspirational Leader of the Year Award,” in 2010 by the National Latina Business Women Association, and was among the “100 Most Influential Hispanics in the U.S.,” in 2005 by Hispanic Business Magazine.

“I found obstacles being a woman, being Latina, and being dark-skinned in this profession. For many years and in many orchestras, it was not common to find Latinos as musicians or conductors in the United States. However, you find them in Latin American countries. I have offered myself to conduct for free and even then I was not accepted. There are still barriers, which makes our mission even more important, to help our children become classical music lovers.”

Susana G. Baumann writes for Voxxi.

[Photo by sorchestra]

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