N.Y. composer breaks new ground with Sinfonietta

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Cathryn Wilkinson

Spring is bustin' out all over for composer Tania León, who travels from New York to Chapel Hill to Chicago for three premieres in as many weeks.

And that's just her concert schedule, which includes a run with the Chicago Sinfonietta here March 30-31. On the first day of spring we talked by phone about new things-the composition she was hoping to complete that afternoon, the cuts she has just checked over for an upcoming CD of songs by poet Margaret Atwood, and Singin' Sepia, a compilation of her works that Bridge just released two weeks ago.

A life filled with premieres and new adventures is normal for León, who is not even close to resting on laurels earned over 35 years as a composer and teacher, most of them spent in New York. But no matter where she is, she's constantly on the lookout for novelty.

"An audience should be that way, too," she suggests in her animated and accented voice. "When someone comes to a concert, they should be eager to listen for something they have never heard before."

León collaborated with Sinfonietta Music Director Paul Freeman and two soloists to come up with a new mix of music in celebration of "Ladies' Choice," a concert to mark International Women's Month. Even the staple "E-Flat Trumpet Concerto" of Joseph Haydn, with its centuries-tarnished brilliance, will be offered in a new light-the old standby is being played by British trumpeter Alison Balsom in her debut with the Sinfonietta.


Much more familiar to León, who was named a Guggenheim Fellow last year, will be "Kabiosile" (1988) and "Horizons" (1999), two of her own works, which she knows inside and out. Does this composer ever wish to remake her music after hearing it in performance for so many years? "Every performance has its own interpretation-that is true-but really, once I've written a piece, I'm very religious about it in that sense; I let it be. I don't want to go back and try to re-examine my past."

Even then, she confesses, "We all get surprised by things that show up in our own music. You write something, and then you wonder where in the world did that come from? We're like sponges that absorb musical materials all the time and we don't even know it's happening."

This concert's radiant piano soloist Jade Simmons has been absorbing a lot of León's music and a lot of limelight lately. Her 2005 performance of León's electrifying "Kabiosile" (inspired by an African god of thunder, lightning and fire), was acclaimed as one of the best of the year by critics at Artforum.

One of Ebony magazine's "30 Leaders Under 30" and a featured "Rising Star at Ravinia," Simmons is hoping for a new work for piano and percussion by León. But León is already committed to a new ballet score for a company in Brazil, her first string quartet, and a work for band, her first for that medium, which means she won't get to Simmons's piano project until some time late in 2009.

The opening work Leon chose for this concert was written in 1882 by a French woman, Augusta Holmés, forgotten to most. Learning her tone poem "Irelande" in 19th-century Romantic style was a new experience for León and will probably be a premiere to the ears of most of the Sinfonietta musicians.

For 21 years, Chicago Sinfonietta has carved out a solid and ever-widening niche, perhaps by now a rambling canyon, filled with little-known repertoire and just-waiting-to-be discovered performers. In fact, León says in many ways she feels a brotherhood with founder Paul Freeman. They have both been detectives seeking out the unknown and unusual against the more traditional backdrop of orchestral music. "I've known about Paul's work for a long time. I have his old "Black Composers" series on vinyl-that's how long! When he called last year and said he had been looking for a good chance for us to get together, I was really honored. Here was a man I had admired for decades, asking me to come and lead his orchestra. That is something quite new! In a way, for me the whole experience has already been wonderful and I haven't even arrived in Chicago yet."

The Sinfonietta program also features music by Chen Yi, a native of Ghangzhou, China. Having received commissions from orchestras and soloists across the U.S., including Yo-Yo Ma, Chen now composes full-time in Kansas City as a recipient of the prestigious "Charles Ives Living" Award. Her "Ge Xu/Antiphony" is based on a Chinese folk song.


"The audience might not realize that's what they are hearing, but I don't think they need to be familiar with the folk song in order to hear this piece. In fact, based on my experience, someone who listens to music very actively might hear things that the composer never even imagined," says León.

León's percussive and dramatic musical style does not create garden variety sounds. But the composer cautions against misinformed preconceptions: "The music we play, the people who wrote it, and the performers, none of us are from another planet! We are a part of the same world as the audience. Often people think they won't have any kind of affinity for contemporary music, but they need to know what it's like and that they can have a part in the whole experience."

Stepping in front of a new orchestra to conduct any piece is rather unpredictable, but León says it depends on how many times you've done it. "I know I can trust that moment." Her own works, primarily eschewing traditional names like symphony and sonata, fuse her life experiences-an amalgam of Cuban, Spanish, and Chinese heritage-with Western fine art music.

"This concert," she says, "includes some very challenging and unfamiliar music for the players, but we have a global vocabulary. Even though I've never seen them and they may have never heard what I'm asking them to play, you would be surprised at how quickly you can recognize each other in the music."

For tickets and more information about Sinfonietta's upcoming performances at Lund Auditorium, Dominican University, March 30 at 2:30 p.m. or at Symphony Center, March 31, contact the box office at 312/236-3681, ext. 2 or www.chicagosinfonietta.org


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