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The Cuban-born American composer, pianist, and conductor Tania León won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for her orchestra work Stride.

Tania Justina León was born in Havana, Cuba, on May 14, 1943. She moved to New York City in 1967 and in the early 2000s moved from Queens to Nyack, New York. Stride was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden, Music Director, and the Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar, Music Director; the piece was requested by the New York Philharmonic as part of their “Project 19” commissions marking the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Léon inscribed the score “In honor of Susan B. Anthony” and “Dedicated to the visionaries Deborah Borda and Jaap van Zweden”; Borda was at the time the Philharmonic’s President and CEO. Jaap van Zweden led the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere performance on February 13, 2020, in Geffen Hall, New York City. It is the first Tania León work to be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons on January 11, 12, 13, and 26, 2024, at Symphony Hall and on January 29 at Carnegie Hall.

The score for Stride calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players—I. marimba, tubular bells, bongos, tom-toms, bass drum; II. vibraphone, tubular bells, small cymbal, sand blocks, roto-toms; III. crotales, sizzle cymbal, medium cymbal, sand blocks, tambourine, timbales, djembe [West African hand drum], small bass drum or zurdo [Brazilian drum]), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Stride is about 14 minutes long.

At the time of its premiere by the New York Philharmonic, Tania León provided these comments on Stride:

When the New York Philharmonic reached out to me about writing for this project celebrating the 19th Amendment, I confess I only knew about it generally. I started doing research, reading Susan B. Anthony’s biography, her statements. 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 usually do it. The word “stride” reflected how I imagined her way of not taking “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 I mean by Stride. Stride has some of what, to me, are American musical influences, or at least American musical connotations. For example, there is a section where you can hear the horns with the wa-wa plunger, reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, getting that growl. It doesn’t have to be indicative of any particular skin tone; it has to do with the American spirit. When I discovered American music, Louis Armstrong actually was the first sound that struck me. When I moved here, the only composers I knew anything about were Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. The night I arrived at Kennedy Airport, I was picked up by a Cuban couple from the Bronx, who allowed me to stay on their sofa. I looked at the stairs outside of their building, and I started crying “Maria!” They were confused, and I explained that in Cuba I’d heard the song by Leonard Bernstein. I later worked with Bernstein, and we were very close in his later years. When I first arrived here I couldn’t speak English…but I knew how to say “Maria.”

That Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, with its Puerto Rican heroine, leapt to mind for Tania León upon her arrival in New York City as a 24-year-old speaks both to the worldwide reach of the still-fresh musical and to its resonance with the Spanish-speaking Cuban composer. Born in Havana, León had made it to the city circuitously after navigating the thorny relationship between Cuba and the U.S. in the years immediately following Fidel Castro’s assumption of power in 1959. Through a Catholic agency (reports her biographer Alejandro J. Madrid in Tania León’s Stride: A Polyrhythmic Life), León traveled first to Miami—which was scarcely closer than Havana to her original goal of Paris—before settling in New York, which has been the center of her world for more than fifty years. (In the early 2000s she moved her living space from Queens to Nyack, NY, just up Hudson.) The city helped shape her life as an artist, but she, in return, has had a wide impact on the musical culture there.

By design and by circumstance, Tania León’s orchestra work Stride is a coming-together of many byways and interests from throughout the composer’s life. Its connections to the New York Philharmonic go beyond the fact that that orchestra commissioned and premiered it. She dedicated the score to the Philharmonic’s then-music director Jaap van Zweden and its CEO, Deborah Borda. In 1993 during Borda’s previous leadership role with the orchestra, León had been named the Charles H. Revson Composer Fellow of the New York Philharmonic, working under Kurt Masur, but that role was essentially advisory, leading to no commissions or performances of her music. Stride could be seen as a long-awaited fulfillment of that role’s promise. Recently León was also named to the Philharmonic’s board of directors.

A few months after its first performances, in the midst of the pandemic, Stride was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music, classical music’s most venerable honor. The following year she was recognized at the 45th Kennedy Center Honors alongside such pop-culture luminaries as U2, Gladys Knight, George Clooney, and Amy Grant. Last month she became the first female recipient of the SGAE Ibero-American Music Award, joining a list of composers including Leonardo Balada, Leo Brouwer, and Roberto Sierra.

These honors celebrate a professional career that has spanned, so far, some sixty rich, multidimensional years. Growing up in Havana, León had demonstrated musical talent that led her paternal grandmother to initiate what the composer called in an interview “the Tania project”—her family’s goal of providing her opportunity and expanding her horizons. Biographer Alejandro L. Madrid relates that she was given a toy piano as a child, and the family acquired a full upright piano for her and her brother when she was only 5, in spite of limited financial resources. Already interested in the Western classical music she heard on the radio, León studied piano at Havana’s Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory concurrently with her academic studies. By her teenage years she was composing informally, but it was as a pianist that she began attracting attention. She also naturally engaged with the Cuban folk and popular music and dance that she encountered in the city.

León’s childhood corresponded to the politically tumultuous period in Cuba that eventuated in dictator Fulgencio Batista’s ouster and dictator Fidel Castro’s ascent to head of state. After graduating the conservatory in 1960, she hoped to travel to Paris for study, but for practical reasons she earned a college degree in accounting. Meanwhile she encountered other young composers and musicians, including the now well-known Paquito D’Rivera and the singer-composer Marta Valdéz, who offered León her first paying job as a musician, but she otherwise performed frequently, playing her own and others’ new works. This gave her much of the experience she needed to work as a professional in New York, even as she earned her master’s degree in composition at New York University, working with Ursula Mamlock.

In 1969, just two years after her arrival in the U.S., León became the founding music director of Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem. As a conductor León gained a lot of experience quickly; she even had a year-long stint as music director of the Broadway hit The Wiz. In 1978, she fulfilled an early dream of studying at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Music Center, where she joined the conducting seminar and worked with Seiji Ozawa and Leonard Bernstein, with whom she developed a warm friendship. León has conducted orchestras and opera productions throughout Europe as well as in South America, Cuba, Africa, and Asia.

León’s expansive musical activities also include having served as a longtime member of the faculties of Brooklyn College and City University of New York. She has organized new music festivals and initiatives elevating the profiles of Latin American composers, all while composing for commissions from ensembles and festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe. Her opera Scourge of Hyacinths was commissioned for the Munich Biennale; other commissions include orchestral works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, NDR Symphony Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and works for Ensemble Modern and International Contemporary Ensemble, among others. Beginning in fall 2023, León is composer-in-residence with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has commissioned Tania León to write a new orchestra work for a future season.

Stride’s score inscription in honor of Susan B. Anthony indirectly acknowledges the difficulties León faced being a composer and conductor in a field dominated by men (to name just one of the embedded obstacles she has had to overcome). León, though, prefers to deflect any categorization of her work as being, say, by a woman composer; by a Cuban composer; by a Black composer; by an American composer. Many critics and assessors have found themselves tempted by a quick reading of her music to pigeonhole her voice, when in the end her inquisitive artistic personality has transformed every influence into something powerfully individual. Her lifelong engagement with music for dance is palpable throughout her music. Related to this is her ear for instrumental timbres and her awareness of the physical requirements behind performing each instrument. In Stride, that physicality parallels the idea of unstoppable motion that León invokes with her title.

Stride begins outside of time, without pulse, with strings in harmonics and pizzicato creating a sonic haze. The trumpets’ out-of-phase fanfares encourage percussion, and the piece begins to unfurl through an active interplay of contrasting orchestral colors. The composer has suggested that this narrative idea of different streams and densities of activity is a metaphor for human interaction in all its variety. A musical characteristic of many of León’s pieces (e.g., her orchestra piece Horizons), the effect is achieved both through very detailed notation and through brief pockets of incompletely defined, quasi-improvised fragments for individual players. Under this seemingly conflicting activity a slow, undeniable, but not-quite-steady pulse is maintained, an irregular tread of pizzicato double basses and sandblocks. This drives to a climax, after which, suspended again in time, we’re treated to brief virtuoso passages for contrabassoon, flutes, piccolo, oboes, percussion, violins. As a coda, the pizzicato bass-sandblock foundation returns along with the trumpet fanfares and bursts of percussion. Tubular bells have the last word, a jubilant tolling suggesting celebration—but not necessarily conclusion.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.