Tag Archives: Local 802

New York Philharmonic Agrees to Four Years of Wage Cuts

At the beginning of December, musicians and management of the New York Philharmonic reached an agreement on a four-year contract. The new CBA represents a continuation of the shorter term pay cuts that musicians have taken since May, with a 25% salary reduction continued through August 2023. Pay will then increase through September 2024, with the reduction gradually shrinking to 10%. Beginning in 2022, musicians will receive bonus payments if the orchestra exceeds financial expectations.

Trombonist Colin Williams, head of the negotiating committee and a member of Local 802 (New York City), says, “In recognition of the challenges of this time, we have done our part to help preserve the institution by forgoing more than $20 million of our wages.”

The orchestra has lost a total of $31 million in ticket revenue from canceled performances this season and last season due to the pandemic.

Little Augie and His Trumpet

This children’s book by Local 802 (New York City) member Augie Haas is about a young boy who discovers the magic of music, and dedicates his time to learning the trumpet. Little Augie learns that playing the trumpet is not as easy as he thought it would be, but he is determined to get better. After days, weeks, and months of practicing, Little Augie invites the neighborhood over to hear the fruits of his labor. He didn’t anticipate that he would be so nervous and need the help of his friends and family to give him the courage to perform.

Little Augie and his Trumpet

Little Augie and His Trumpet, written and illustrated by Augie Haas, Playtime Music, www.augiehaas.com.

fred hersch

Jazz Pianist Fred Hersch Deals Creatively with Isolation

fred hersch

If you’re looking for Fred Hersch right now, you won’t find him in New York City, despite his being one of the most prominent jazz pianists and educators in the city and a longtime member of Local 802. Like most other musicians, Hersch’s gigs are on ice for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These days, he is quarantining in Pennsylvania with his partner. “We’ve been hiding in the woods since it began,” he laughs.

Which isn’t to say that Hersch has stopped playing. Far from it. For the first six weeks of isolation, Hersch streamed what he called “Tune of the Day” on Facebook Live, performing a single, unaccompanied tune. Having upwards of 8,000 people logging on daily to hear one tune is an indicator of the reach and popularity of this largely self-taught pianist from Cincinnati.

Hersch started playing at the age of four. “Like most kids, I began with classical training,” he recalls. “But I always liked to improvise.” Hersch was fortunate to study theory and composition in elementary school. “At a young age I learned score reading, counterpoint, and music history,” he says. He didn’t actually intend to go into music, starting out college as a liberal arts major. “In 1973 on a school break I stumbled into a jazz club in Cincinnati. And that sealed the deal.”

Hersch began to focus on learning through experience from live jazz players. “I got some tough love,” he says, acknowledging that’s often the best kind. “My first time in a jazz club, I played Autumn Leaves not well,” he laughs. “The sax player took me into the back room, put on Duke Ellington, and told me to shut up and listen. He told me I had to learn time, and how to swing like that.”

Hungry for more, Hersch enrolled at the New England Conservatory, then landed in New York at the age of 21. Hersch recalls he was something of a novelty on the New York jazz scene, which helped him make connections and improve his skills. “I knew a lot of tunes, I could swing, accompany, and I was ambitious,” he says. “There was almost no technology for distraction back then. People went out every night, so I got great exposure and more gigs.”

Hersch tried making his first recordings at 30, which, he points out, is old by today’s standards. He now has nearly 20 albums over three decades to his credit, including solo work, albums with trio, live concert recordings, and his own compositions. But he still gets the most satisfaction from live performance. He employs the analogy of acting: “Recording is like making a film as opposed to a stage play,” he explains. “Some film or stage actors like Meryl Streep can do both. But I’m the opposite of, say, Glenn Gould, who did retakes and constantly edited. He didn’t think of a recording as a live performance.” Hersch accordingly feels some of his best albums are ‘found objects’: someone for instance recorded a concert of his, and that became an album. “In the studio there’s a drive for perfection, along with headphones and other distractions to make you self-conscious. I prefer documenting live performances even if there are flaws.”

Live or otherwise, Hersch has earned a reputation as a unique voice in jazz, something he also tries to impart in his teaching: “I get each student to be true to their own voice. It’s closer to a psychotherapy session. That’s how style develops: you keep coming back to things that interest you.” Hersch balks at the word ‘unique.’ “Leave that for the critics,” he demurs. “But I do think a performance needs emotional content. It’s not just about shredding chord changes. I try to be a storyteller.” The critics have in fact had their say: The New Yorker commented that Hersch plays with “high lyricism and high danger.” Hersch likes that. “There has to be an element of danger,” he agrees. “The trick is to play it like you’re hearing it for the first time. I still get new things from old tunes even after 40 years.”

High danger might also apply to Hersch’s formative years in New York. “I led a double life then,” he admits. “I didn’t want my personal life—specifically my sexuality—to interfere with opportunities to make music with everyone.” Hersch finally came out in the early 90s, and also revealed that he was HIV positive. He says the honesty was an enormous relief. “I don’t think you can be the artist you want to be without confronting all aspects of who you are. And it’s affirming to know that what you do as a musician is more important than your personal life.”

Hersch’s HIV advocacy grew in importance alongside his music. He has done house concerts and benefit albums for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. He has also talked to high school-aged LGBTQ groups, gay/straight alliances, and college campus organizations about HIV/AIDS education. Like so many other musicians right now, he shares concerns over the long-term effects of the current pandemic. “AIDS numbers worldwide are in the tens of millions. COVID-19 numbers are smaller, but the economic repercussions for the arts are devastating. Tours and gigs may not happen again till there’s a vaccine. Many independent music presenters will go under if the government does not step up support. And this needs to happen, because losing the arts translates to huge financial losses for communities.”

With nobody performing, Hersch has had to fundamentally rethink how he presents music. One strategy involves rethinking his initial Facebook Live offering, offering a “gently monetized” mini concert each Monday. He shares program notes and discusses aspects of the music like interpretation. “Streaming is what we could likely have for the foreseeable future,” he predicts. “Clubs and other venues will livestream to survive, and also to honor the great musicians who have played there.” One possible stumbling block he sees is saturation. “There may be so many offerings that it will be hard to decide. When people are already spending much of their day on screens for work, will they want to sit for even more screen time?” It’s uncharted territory, he says, and there are no easy answers.

Hersch is appreciative of what the AFM is doing for so many musicians, especially in this present crisis. “I’m a card-carrying union member, have been since my early days, and I’m proud of it.” He turns 65 in October, and reluctantly acknowledges that COVID-19 could mean an early forced retirement for him. “But if I had to stop today, I have zero regrets,” he says. “My career has been amazing.”

Belinda Whitney

Belinda Whitney: Tapestry of Support Shapes Compelling Career

Belinda Whitney

photo credit: Matt Dine

Violinist Belinda Whitney of Local 802 (New York City) has forged an exciting and diverse career. She’s currently concertmaster and personnel manager for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, concertmaster for the Broadway show My Fair Lady, performs with the Harlem Chamber Players, plus does a wide range of commercial gigs. She credits her success to all the people that believed in her and helped her along the way.

Whitney’s journey in music began at school. “No one is more a product of music in the public schools than I am,” she says, recalling the first time she heard a string quartet in second grade in Philadelphia. Later, she was one of two students from each classroom selected to take violin lessons.

Her remarkably dedicated violin teacher, John Hamilton, invested heavily in his students, traveling to their homes once a week for free, private lessons. “He would give me lessons until I couldn’t concentrate anymore and then he would stay for dinner,” she recalls. It was the only payment he would accept. “He also took us to free concerts, found performance opportunities for us, and he introduced us to a summer camp.” Still teaching and performing, Hamilton is now a member of Local 294 (Lancaster, PA).

Already gigging in college, Whitney joined Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) as a student. “It was very formal. I had an interview and I dressed up and brought my violin. The interviewer asked a lot of questions. I played some scales and a little solo,” she says. “It really drove home the fact that I was becoming part of something. We had pride in what we were doing and I valued that.” However, she had no idea how important her union would be later.

Whitney received a Bachelor of Music from Temple University and a Master of Music from The Juilliard School, where she was a scholarship student of Ivan Galamian. Though her studies were classical, the music she wished to play was more commercial. “I always loved old movies and the sound of old TV show orchestras,” she says. “When I started doing freelance gigs in college, my professor said, ‘Now, don’t you enjoy these gigs too much.’ But, I loved doing commercial work.”

Before graduation, she was already hired to play in Philadelphia that summer for The King and I with Yul Brynner. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not out of school and I already have a job,’” says Whitney who was 23 at the time. “I loved it. I got to work with a lot of seasoned pros; it was a great introduction.”

“At the time, big stars would go on the road,” she says. Following The King and I, she worked on several other shows—Sugar Babies with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney and Mame with Angela Lansbury—and other acts that came through Philadelphia and Atlantic City. “I recorded with Sigma Sounds and Philadelphia International Records and did symphonic work as well. I felt like I had it all.”

Belinda Whitney

Photo credit: Kevin Yatarola

Her first full-time symphony position was as associate concertmaster for Savannah Symphony. “They sort of took a chance on me because I had no experience [as concertmaster],” she says. When the former concertmaster left, Whitney became one of the first black concertmasters for a large symphony. “That was a big feather in my cap that led to a lot of other things.”

After a few years, she wanted a change of pace and moved back to Philadelphia. A short time later she had her first gig on Broadway. The concertmaster for City of Angels dropped out just weeks before the show’s opening and John Miller, a Local 802 contractor, hired her. “It was a little odd to start in New York as concertmaster for a Broadway show, but I’d already paid my dues elsewhere,” says Whitney who went on to have a long and rewarding association with Miller. “I feel really lucky for that,” she says.

According to Whitney, one of the most important duties of a Broadway concertmaster is to maintain high standards. Not everyone is cut out for Broadway, she says. “In a symphony, you prepare a different concert every week or so. With a Broadway show, you play the same thing over and over—for years, if you are lucky. Being a concertmaster for a Broadway show is a matter of maintenance: keeping standards up, while keeping the work atmosphere inclusive, light, and pleasant. New York is full of incredibly fantastic musicians and it’s important to foster an atmosphere of respect in the pit.”

“I don’t mind playing the same thing over and over,” she says. “I feel when you play Broadway you are either building up or tearing down. You are either playing your best and thinking ‘tonight I’m going to make my sound a little better’ or just phoning it in, which is tearing down. As a concertmaster, it is my challenge to keep the standards high in the face of repetition.”

Whitney has now served as concertmaster for many Broadway shows. When asked for her personal favorite, she replies, “I could tell you why they are all my favorites. I’ve always loved old musicals. At Lincoln Center, I was concertmaster, as well as in-house contractor, for South Pacific, The King and I (which I did for a second time), and currently My Fair Lady.”

Music Coordinator David Lai of Local 802 first asked her to contract for South Pacific. “I tend to take on challenges,” she says. “He led me through it. It was a big orchestra—30 people—and by the time everyone was allotted five subs, we were talking 180 people. That was a pretty big payroll and a lot of people to get to know.”

That’s when she first realized all the little things her union does behind the scenes to make sure musicians are compensated and treated fairly. “I really can’t imagine navigating the musical freelance business without the union,” she says, describing how she acts as a bridge to the union. “I enjoy people—facilitating work situations and making them run as smoothly and painlessly as possible.”

Today, Whitney is also contractor and personnel director for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which she’s been involved with from its inception. When she first met with founder and Local 802 member Gary Fagin about his ideas, Whitney discovered they had similar approaches to music. “We both value musicians who are experienced in a variety of styles,” she says. “He said he felt New York freelance musicians are among the most well-rounded musicians in the world today, and have extensive playing experience, at the highest level, in many different styles. This was exactly what he wanted for Knickerbocker.”

Belinda Whitney

photo credit: Cenovia Cummins

Whitney also told him she would not contract an orchestra that didn’t provide fair wages and benefits for its musicians. “We agreed on this from day one,” she says. “We’ve had some unusual requests and Gary always says, ‘We do it the right way or we don’t do it.’ It’s been wonderful to be the bridge between this orchestra, this man who has this fantastic vision, and the union whose priority is getting people the benefits to which they are entitled. These musicians are absolutely valued.”

The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra is Lower Manhattan’s orchestra, she says. “It started 10 years ago, not long after 9/11, at a time when so many orchestras were folding. It’s been wonderful to be a part of building it and I feel lucky to have done that.”

Whitney thrives in the diverse work of a freelance musician, which for her has also included film scores, records, and working with artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Barbra Streisand, and Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI). She can also be heard, along with violinist Cenovia Cummins of Local 802, in the recording of the tango introduction to the show Mystery Masterpiece Theatre.

As an old movie buff, Whitney felt particularly blessed when she met Donald O’Connor during an MGM special at Carnegie Hall. “I went to his dressing room and we had a great time talking. At the concert, he spoke about his experiences with MGM. As they dimmed the lights to play a video of his routine ‘Make ’Em Laugh.’ I saw him walking over to me. He says, ‘Now let’s watch,’ and puts his arm around me and we watched it together. I was on stage at Carnegie Hall, watching ‘Make ’Em Laugh’ with Donald O’Connor’s arm around me! That really tickled me.”

Among the necessities for a successful freelance career, according to Whitney, are union membership, networking, affability, and professionalism. Earning livable wages as a freelance musician would not be feasible without the union, she contends. “The union really pulls it all together. I think we take our union for granted, but the way the freelance world works is really a product of our union’s hard work.”

“Respect, pleasantness, networking, and being on time and ready to play are huge for musicians,” she continues. “In a big group of musicians, you may not stand out. But, if you are early, ready to play, dependable, and friendly, people will want you around. The music world today is very competitive and there are a lot of people who can do a job pretty well. Sometimes networking skills can give you a slight edge. People will forgive a lot of missteps if they realize you are eager to learn and pleasant to be around. We all remember when we were young.”

It’s also critical to be a well-rounded musician, she says. “My experiences in Broadway, the recording business, and the classical business keep looping around for me. One takes me to the other, then back to the first. It’s been a rich experience learning different styles.”

Looking back on her career Whitney is thankful to everyone who helped her succeed. “God has blessed me more than I ever thought and I feel humbled that so many people took a chance on me. When I take inventory of my journey I realize that my career is like a tapestry of all the people who invested in me—from my family who encouraged and believed in me, to my parents driving me all over the country to music camps, to that very first teacher,” she says. “I love that I’m involved with the Harlem Chamber Players and Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which put on children’s concerts. Investing in others is really important because that’s what brought me here.”

Whitney feels that working with young children is key to bringing more racial diversity to symphony orchestras. “By the time musicians are out of college, I feel like it should be a level playing field,” she says. “I think the reason I did as well as I did was because people invested so heavily in me before I got to college.”

“When I talk to my colleagues, many of them had parents who played an instrument so they started at a very early age and music was a part of the home. But about 90% of the black professional musicians I know started music in the public schools. So that means they are starting later. I think we should invest in programs targeting younger people so when they get to college they are already competitive,” she says.

Local 802 Awards First Grant to Emerging Artists

Local 802 (New York City)’s new grant program, the Emerging Artists Project, is poised to award its inaugural grant after a long selection process. Sixteen highly esteemed musicians listened to and rated all the applicants and an in-house committee evaluated the application materials (performance history, business plan, audience base, social justice, and education components).

The Roxy Coss Quintet was chosen as the winner of this year’s prize. The quintet is made up of Roxy Coss (saxophone/leader), Alex Wintz (guitar), Miki Yamamoto (piano), Rick Rosato (bass), and Jimmy Macbride (drums). Coss is also the founding director of the Women in Jazz Organization. The exciting quintet edged out 51 other applicants and will receive $10,000 per year, for four years. The grant may be used any way the band sees fit, allowing them to grow into a fully professional and cohesive ensemble over the four-year term. Coss, as leader, has signed a one-year agreement with Local 802 covering all their work, establishing minimum pay scales for all future dates, and including contributions to the AFM-EPF. All members of the quintet have agreed to become members of the union.

Local 802 is facing many of the same systemic problems as other unions across the country: declining membership, a decline in the amount of covered work, and a new generation of professionals who do not understand the benefits of a union or of collective bargaining. A crucial element of our mission as a union is to support live music and encourage those who perform it.

Even at this early stage of the Emerging Artists Project, we can say that it is beginning to address those systemic issues and further our own stated mission. Among the 52 completed applications we received this year, the pool of musicians totaled almost 400. Of those, almost three-quarters have had no previous connection to, or contact with, the union and were not members.

Most of the applicant groups described themselves as multi-genre or alternative, areas where we have few contracts. We had bands who took inspiration from ’60s film soundtracks, bands who combined Bollywood and jazz, and bands who played hip-hop music influenced by classical traditions. It is an exciting mix that performs at a very high level.  These are perfect examples of the kinds of musicians we want to attract to the union. This project has shown itself to be a useful tool in doing just that.

We have many people to thank for the success of the Emerging Artists Project. Many people at Local 802 worked tirelessly to launch this project, including staff and officers. We would like to thank the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, based at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York City, for partnering with us in this launch. St. Luke’s will be providing discounted rehearsal space and recording studio space and time, as well as mentoring the winning ensemble, should they decide to avail themselves of it. Special thanks go to Local 802 Executive Board Member and harpist Sara Cutler. She was integral to the conception and implementation of this program. I personally thank her for her indefatigable work in ensuring that this program succeeds.

As president of Local 802, I hope to oversee more initiatives like the Emerging Artists Project within our union. As unions face unprecedented pressure across the country, it becomes more important that we think and act creatively to counter those external pressures. This is a good start.

AFM Members Join in Working People’s Day of Action

Working People’s Day of Action was about demanding an end to the rigged economy and defending our freedoms. On February 24, working people across the country came together to defend our freedoms and fight for decent and equitable pay for our work, affordable health care, quality schools, vibrant communities, and a secure future for all.

Working People’s Day of Action was planned to take place in advance of the February 26 US Supreme Court hearings in Janus vs. AFSCME. The anti-union forces behind this case simply do not believe that working people should be afforded the same freedoms and opportunities as they are.

The day also recalls when Dr. Martin Luther King came to the aid of Memphis sanitation workers in February 1968. They were protesting discrimination, low pay, and inhumane conditions that had led to the gruesome death of two workers on the job. On February 12, the sanitation workers went on strike to demand that their dignity, their humanity, and their union be recognized. On February 21, the strikers began to march every day, carrying signs that boldly proclaimed, “I AM A MAN.”

This year, on February 24, working people and their allies joined together to demand an end to an economy that’s rigged against working people and defend the freedoms that Dr. King fought and died for. As Dr. King told the sanitation workers in Memphis, “Freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed.”

AFM members across the country joined demonstrations with their union brothers and sisters to stand up for the right to unionize. Among them, Local 655 (Miami, FL) President Charles “Chas” Reskin, Secretary-Treasurer Jeffrey Apana, and other musicians attended a rally at Bayfront Park in Miami. Among representatives of Local 802 at the New York City rally were Maria DiPasquale and CLC delegate Marvin Moschel. In Washington, DC, demonstrators, including Local 161-710 Executive Board Director Doug Rosenthal, gathered at Freedom Plaza. Local 4 (Cleveland, OH) chartered a bus and filled it with musician members to participate in a Columbus rally.

“Under current law, every public service worker may choose whether or not to join the union—but the union is required to negotiate on behalf of all workers, whether they join or not. Since all the workers benefit from the union’s gains, it’s only fair that everyone chip in toward the cost. That’s why 40 years ago a unanimous Supreme Court approved the kind of cost-sharing arrangements known as ‘fair share.’ The Janus v. AFSCME case is an effort to outlaw this fair share procedure,” explains Local 4 President Leonard DiCosimo.

Representatives of Cleveland Jobs with Justice and the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor joined Local 4 on their bus. “Though the Janus case deals with public employees,” DiCosimo says, “it is still relevant to the primarily private-sector employees of the AFM. Our presumption is that, if the ruling is in favor of Janus, there will be a movement to get a case before the Supreme Court that is basically the same dynamic for private-sector unions.”

Tania León

Tania León: A Celebration of Diversity in Composing and Life

Tania León

Tania León of Local 802 (New York City) conducts the Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA) in the premiere of her work Pa’lante. (Photo credit: Craig Mathew)

The music of North America would be vastly different if not for the richness brought from other cultures. That’s one reason why the career of Tania León is so remarkable. If she had not bravely come to the US on a 1967 “Freedom Flight” from Cuba, she would not have gifted New York City and the country with her talents and influence, inspiring generations of artists. The pianist, composer, conductor, and educator’s career culminated in the founding of her own composer organization and festival seven years ago.

“I wanted to create something that brought composers together from all walks of life,” says León. Founded in 2010, her nonprofit Composers Now is dedicated to empowering all living composers, while celebrating the diversity—in gender, culture, genre—of their voices and contributions. This month, composers gather in New York City to take part in this year’s theme: “the impact of arts in our society.”

“We have more than 99 events all over the city—each attended by the composer,” says León. “It’s a very inclusive audience.”

A proud and longtime member of Local 802 (New York City), León recalls joining the union early in her career when she was as an accompanist and worked as a music director and conductor for Broadway shows, including The Wiz and The Human Comedy. “I’ve worn lots of different hats, and all the while, backed up and supported by the union. A lot of musicians depend on Local 802. The AFM is a core organization—instrumental to having a career in music.”

Cuban Roots

Tania León

Tania León of Local 802 (New York City) looks on while Henry Louis Gates, Jr., speaks at a September 2017 event commemorating the anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock High School. (Photo credit: Blake Tyson)

Though she grew up poor in Havana, León’s entire family supported her remarkable musical talent. Her grandmother insisted she be admitted to the music conservatory at age four, before she could even read. Her grandfather purchased a piano for the household when León was five. An avid reader, her grandmother often spoke to her about artists—Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Leonard Bernstein—many of whom Tania later got to work with.

When she was nine years old, León’s teacher casually planted the seed of her becoming an international pianist. While performing in France, he sent her a postcard of the Eiffel Tower. “It had such an impact; I kept saying to my family that one day I would live in Paris,” says León.

Before leaving Cuba, she earned a BA and MA from Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory, and simultaneously, earned her CPA from the school of commerce—in case her dream of being a musician never materialized. “My family did so much to give me the best education they could,” she says.

Arriving first in Miami, she knew the city could not offer the opportunities needed to launch a music career. She explained her predicament to a church sponsor. Three days later she had a one-way ticket to New York City, which she has called home ever since.

León was able to work as an accountant at the Americana Hotel, while she worked towards validating her degrees in the US. “Following an audition, I was given an almost instant scholarship from New York College of Music and they sent me to study English at New York University [NYU],” she says. Eventually she earned her BA and MS from NYU.

Soon after arriving in the country in 1967, she became aware her new home was facing challenges—protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War were in full swing. While New York City was diverse and accepting, the unrest in the country raised her consciousness. “At NYU there was a rally every three days and the suspension of classes. Because I didn’t speak English, my classmates would tell me what to scream when we attended the rallies,” she says. “Within that first year after my arrival, Martin Luther King was assassinated.”

“When I first saw what was going on with desegregation I was saddened,” she says. Coming from a multi-racial background, racism was not something she had experienced up to that point in her life. “My neighborhood [in Cuba] was integrated. We were unified in that we were all poor.”

Racism is something she’s never been able to wrap her head around. “I don’t care what you look like. There are no two people in the world with the same skin tone; we are all different,” she says. “We all reflect each other; we are all created in the image of one another; and everyone has something to give.”

Birth of a Composer

A chance meeting with Arthur Mitchell, the New York City Ballet’s first African American principal dancer, changed the course of her life. She had agreed to sub as a ballet accompanist, and during a break, she met Mitchell when he heard her playing. “The door opened and there he was; it was like he’d come out of a movie set,” she says.

Eventually, he asked if she’d like to help with his new project, Dance Theatre of Harlem. Motivated by the assassination of King, Mitchell had the idea of using art, specifically dance, to affect social change. León became the organization’s first music director. Eventually, Mitchell inspired León to create her first composition, Tones, which she dedicated to her grandmother.

“One day Arthur said to me, ‘Why don’t you write a piece and I will do the choreography?” recalls León. “The whole experience moved me so much that I wanted to change my major to composition.”

Similarly, on the suggestion of Mitchell, León first conducted the Juilliard Orchestra for a Dance Theatre of Harlem performance in Italy. “The next thing I knew, I was in the pit and the next day my picture was in the paper with the caption ‘woman conductor,’” she says. “When we came back, I studied conducting.”

León never thought she would write an opera either. When she was first contacted by Munich Biennale festival founder Hans Werner Henze to write one, she thought it was a joke. Her opera, Scourge of Hyacinths, commissioned in 1994 and based on a BBC radio play by Wole Soyinka, won the BMW Prize for best new opera at the festival in 1999.

León instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert series in 1978. Over the years, she’s advised and worked with dozens of other organizations, among them: The New York Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra, Sonidos de las Americas Festivals, International Alliance of Women in Music, Quintet of the Americas, Symphony Space, Sphinx Organization, Orquesta Sinfonica de las Americas, altaVoz, and Chamber Music America.

Today, León is an inspiration to young composers, a cultural activist, and a champion for contemporary music. She has been a professor at Brooklyn College since 1985 and is a City University of New York (CUNY) distinguished professor since 2010. As a professor, she sees her role as supportive: teaching students to believe in themselves and helping them to bring out their best compositions.

“I encourage them to follow their beliefs and support them spiritually—to find who they are. We all get preoccupied about how to start a piece and the first time the piece is heard by others. In my teaching, I incorporate everything—how to bow, how to address an audience, and how they are going to make a living,” she explains. “After years of working, you develop your voice. And hopefully, with that voice, you can write in different styles.”

Return to Cuba

Even she had to find her voice. Early in her composing career, in 1979, León visited with her father in Cuba. She played him some of her compositions. “Before I left, my father said my music was very interesting, but asked ‘where are you in your music?’ Unfortunately, that was our last conversation and I was left with that question, not knowing what he meant,” she says.

As she thought about her trip and Cuba, it occurred to her that she could include traces of the music of her primary culture in the music she was composing. Shortly after, she began Four Pieces for Cello. “The third movement, ‘Tumbao,’ refers to my father’s way of walking—very happy from the heart. That was my first gesture where I included myself,” she says.

In 2016, León was invited to return to her birthplace to perform for the first time. She conducted the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba in a program that included one of her works. León, who has memories of attending the symphony’s concerts with her grandmother, dedicated the performance to her ancestors.

The Little Rock Nine Opera

Tania León

(Photo credit: Andrea Morales)

León is currently working on her latest commission, The Little Rock Nine opera. Commissioned by the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), the opera tells the story of the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Rollin Potter, former dean of UCA’s College of Fine Arts, came up with the idea and Thulani Davis wrote the libretto.

As she researched the project, León was deeply moved. Research is important to any commission, she explains. “When you get a commission and you have to start writing, you panic. What is important to say? You have to get inspired. At least with an opera I collaborate with the librettist.”

She first met with historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., historical researcher for the opera. Then, in September 2017, at the event “Imagine If Buildings Could Talk: Mapping the History of Little Rock Central High School,” she met the surviving Little Rock Nine and even some reporters who had covered those defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

“They spoke and gave their stories,” says León. “I remember all my dreams when I was studying at their age. I believe in empathy and compassion. You have to put yourself in the heart and shoes of the characters. I’ve been trying to hear the syntax of the Little Rock students.”

One thing León has felt strongly about is the Little Rock Nine’s chorus. “I hope the members of the chorus will address diversity to show how much we have grown in compassion and empathy,” she says. The premiere of the opera (in concert form) will be at the high school around the end of 2018 or early 2019.

Commissions & Accolades

In December 2017 León’s composition Ser, commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, premiered. Other recent premieres include Pa’lante, (commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Youth Orchestra LA), Ethos (commissioned by the New York State Council of the Arts for Symphony Space), del Caribe, soy! (commissioned by Saint Martha Concerts for flutist Nestor Torres), and Inura (commissioned and premiered by Dance Brazil).

In January, it was announced that León was selected for a $50,000 United States Artists (USA) fellowship. In 2017, she was honored as one of Musical America’s 30 Professionals of the Year. Among other honors, she was awarded the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, ASCAP Victor Herbert Award (2013), and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2010. She has also received accolades from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and Meet the Composer, among others.

Even today, León retains her sense of wonder about the world, recalling the sequence of events that brought her to where she is today. She remembers her excitement about witnessing last year’s eclipse in Central Park. She still cannot understand, with the vastness of the universe, why people put so much emphasis on how we look and speak.

“We are riding on this vessel and there’s this universe we don’t even know about. It doesn’t make sense that we don’t respect each other,” she says.

john Scofield

John Scofield Brings Country, Rock and More Into His World

john Scofield At age 66 this month and 40 years in, John Scofield is at the prime of his career. A major guitarist in the jazz scene since the 1970s, “Sco” is one of the most prolific jazz geniuses, in a perpetual cycle of recording and touring. In 2016, he received his first Grammy award for the album Past Present, and two more followed in 2017 for Country for Old Men. He’s been nominated a total of nine times and almost constantly has several projects in the works. “I haven’t had a lot of dead air time,” he says.

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Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Ratifies New Agreement

In November, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra announced that it has ratified a new CBA with its musicians, effective through 2020. The contract includes a wage increase of 2.5% per year for New York City rates, as well as restructured rates in other markets. The contract introduces a new chamber music scale, reflecting the orchestra’s increased presence throughout the tri-state area, and a community engagement scale, reflecting a commitment to broaden its reach in the local New York City community.

The new agreement provides more flexibility in touring rules, allowing Orpheus to adjust to complex travel schedules. A new Artistic Oversight Committee will continually evaluate the orchestra’s structure and artistic quality. Finally, the contract allows Orpheus to augment its roster by hiring musicians into a new “associate membership” tier.

The orchestra was recently awarded an increased grant of $175,000 from The Howard Gilman Foundation to support its 2017-2018 New York City performance activity. Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, whose musicians are members of Local 802 (New York City), is unique in its structure and governance, performing without a conductor and rotating musical leadership roles for each work.