September 28, 2007

Latina Conductor Brings Music to the Masses

By Fabio Banegas
Eastern Group Publications

LOS ANGELES – Northeast Los Angeles is the epicenter of an unparalleled cultural revolution – and its leader is a Latina woman.

Sonia Marie de León de Vega is a member of a very small and select group of women in the United States in charge of a high-ranking orchestra. Her mission, she says, is only one: To bring classical music to her community, to Latinos.

A consummate orchestra and opera conductor, she is also the founder of the “Santa Cecilia Orchestra” of Eagle Rock.

De León de Vega says her 21 years conducting have not been without obstacles. Being a woman in a career dominated by men, being a Latina, where there are very few Hispanics, and, regrettably, the prevailing elitism concerning classical music, have all been difficult challenges to overcome, she says.

When leaving the Los Angeles Opera not long ago, an elderly white woman told her: “You people do not belong in places like this,” the conductor told EGP during a recent interview.

“All of that is what I want to change, and I am achieving it,” she says with conviction.

In 1986 her international career took off and she became the first woman in history to be invited to the Vatican to conduct a papal mass. Conducting around the world gave her the opportunity to appreciate that in other countries, unlike in the United States, “culture is accessible to everyone.”

De León de Vega says she vividly remembers her concert in the Palacio de Bellas Artes of Mexico City. “It was in 1989, on a Sunday afternoon, and I noticed that in the audiences were families, moms, dads, their kids.

“The way concerts are put on here is elitist,” she explains. That is why her orchestra’s motto is: “Music is for everyone.”

“I want to see more Latinos at the concerts. I want the concerts to be accessible to them. That has to change, because those orchestras out there are not representing the community,” she says passionately.

In addition to her series of six annual concerts and other conducting engagements, she also oversees the educational program. “Discovering Music.”

“We go to 16 schools a year; we have gone to almost all the schools in Highland Park, and definitely to all the schools in Eagle Rock and Glassell Park. We are impacting the lives of over 16,000 children a year,” she says, proudly explaining that she if she can put a musician with a cello in the middle of a group of 20 children, she can create an impression that will transform their lives forever.

De León de Vega states that if these children keep on playing their instruments, she will personally make sure they get college scholarships.

She remembers that decades ago orchestras were made up almost exclusively of men, and that in the United States, when she began her conducting career, there were only two female conductors.

“Today the role of women has changed a lot,” she says. “Now, in our country we have 19 women conductors in charge of top-ranked orchestras, myself being the only Latina.” But there are many others in varying positions of importance, she adds. In my orchestra, “75 percent of the musicians are women.”

She says that when she was almost six years old, she listened for the first time to the Fate Symphony, as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is also known. And today, “This is my favorite symphony and if there were a composition that would describe my character, it would be the Fifth,” she says.

Sonia Marie de León de Vega says she experiences the same anguish and desperation expressed throughout the course of this symphony. She is compelled by the causes she pursues and the injustices she stands against, and just like in Beethoven’s Fifth, she knows that “the end is full of triumph, it is a triumph like the heavens opening, and at the end is that what wins: goodness, nothing else.”

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