Latina symphony orchestra conductor, Sonia Marie De León de Vega, brings classical music to Hispanics.
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She wasn’t old enough to understand it, but she knew one thing for sure: It was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. Sonia Marie De León de Vega was only 6 and didn’t quite figure out what to make out of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Still, every part of her body made her realize life will never be the same after such a profound, almost mystical experience.
It started with a dream for me. When I started at a very young age (in the world of classical music), I didn’t see Latinos at concerts and didn’t see families of any kind, only a lot of older people. I wanted to open up classical music for the Latino community. That was my dream and that’s why I founded this orchestra.
- Sonia Marie De León de Vega
“That is the first classical piece I recall ever hearing. It’s the same music that plays in the movie The King’s Speech as he is giving the speech at the end. I just fell in love with it,” says De León, who went on to become a renowned symphony and opera conductor, the founder of the prestigious Santa Cecilia Orchestra in California, the first woman ever invited to conduct a symphony orchestra at a Papal Mass in the Vatican, and one of the only two Latinas working as music directors and conductors of a symphony orchestra in the US.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, and raised in Los Angeles, California, Sonia Marie is a fifth-generation Mexican. Her love of art is genetic as her father was singer and guitarist Reynaldo Sánchez and her mother was actress and producer Sonia De León.
“Because of my father, I always heard music in the house. I didn’t hear classical music, but I heard music since my mother was an actress and producer also,” says De León de Vega, who has always taken pride on being Latina: “I speak Spanish, not perfectly, but very fluently. We have our traditions at home, we make tamales, because my husband (Rodolfo Vega) is Mexican American too. There’s something very unique about Latinos, we have very strong ties, very strong roots with our culture.”
That explains why, after taking piano lessons from a very early age and becoming a notable pianist and organist, specializing later on in conducting with David Buck, training at the Herbert Blomstedt International Institute for Instrumental Conductors and taking workshops with such legends like Pierre Boulez, André Previn, Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti, Sonia focused on establishing an orchestra that would reach out to the Hispanic community in California.
Twenty years ago, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra was born in Los Angeles.
“It started with a dream for me. When I started at a very young age (in the world of classical music), I didn’t see Latinos at concerts and didn’t see families of any kind, only a lot of older people. I wanted to open up classical music for the Latino community. That was my dream and that’s why I founded this orchestra,” says Sonia, who also established the Discovering Music Program that includes weekly lessons given by orchestra members to kids at elementary schools in Latino neighborhoods and also rehearsals with community children choirs, all with the support of noted institutions like the Annenberg Foundation.
Both projects have literally touched –and changed-- the lives of thousands of unprivileged Latino kids through music, not much unlike how music transformed Sonia’s own life. But it wasn’t always an easy road.
She has been a conductor for over 25 years now, she was the first woman in history to receive an invitation from the Vatican to conduct a symphony orchestra at a Papal Mass 20 years ago, she is constantly named Woman of the Year by many prestigious organizations and media outlets like Univisión... But back when she started out, there were no women doing what she does. There’s even an anecdote that one of her legendary professors told her she would never lead a symphony orchestra.
“I would say I did break ground for women in a career mostly dominated by male conductors,” says Sonia.
“I was told when I was a young conductor that women would never be accepted conducting a symphony orchestra in my lifetime. So I had to really believe in my work, in myself.”
Asked if she sees herself as a role model for Latino women in the US, Sonia admits she’d like to be. Just not in the way you would think: “I see myself rebelling at the role model because I see myself like any other woman who has a career, and many who have careers, have families, and they have to work very hard to be there for both of them. As a woman and as a Latina, I have to work harder than everyone else. It’s like an everyday battle because I have a career and I have to fight every day to prove myself that I can bring music to the Latino community and convince the Latino family, the moms and the dads, to bring their children to the concerts.”
And how she has done so. Her most memorable recital with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra was, in fact, the “De Alma Latina” concert in 2008, with “pretty heavy classical music like Brahms, Beethoven,” recalls Sonia.
“It was all packed and it was all Latinos, and when we finished the last song, they all stood up and went ‘¡Bravo, bravo!’. When I turned around and saw that, it just felt so powerful because such music, such beauty, such passion. Why would people think that Latinos cannot understand classical music? Everybody understands beauty.”
If her life could be translated into a movie, what would the soundtrack be?
“The soundtrack?,” Sonia asks. “Baladas, Trío Los Panchos, Julio Jaramillo… My father always played his music and said Nuestro Juramento was our song. It would definitely have to have Latino music in there.”
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