Northeast L.A. conductor connects community and classical music

Conductor Sonia Marie de León de Vega | Rodolfo Vega


Classical music is often considered by many as being of interest only to old and monied white elites. But nobody is perhaps more aware of how false such assertions ring than conductor Sonia Marie de León de Vega.

She herself has enjoyed distinction as a pioneering Latina conductor at a time when the presence of women was still rare on the maestro’s rostrum. After honing her craft across the in Europe, the Eastside native returned home with a sense of purpose. The result: The Santa Cecilia Orchestra, the ensemble which she founded and continues to lead as its music director.

But for de León de Vega, performing music is just the start.

As she begins Santa Cecilia’s 25th season this month, the conductor reflected in a phone interview over the orchestra’s mission.

What led you to want to base the orchestra in Northeast Los Angeles?

When I was a teenager in Los Angeles, I never saw people my age or people of color at concerts. Also, [classical music concerts] were always elsewhere: In West Los Angeles or Downtown. What I wanted to was make it affordable for people. Not a community orchestra, but a professional, high-quality orchestra for the community. It’s important for this to thrive from within. I live in Glassell Park and grew up in Echo Park. We want to be part of the community chain.

Of course, the orchestra is very active as part of the city’s musical community. But there is more to it than that?

I love classical music, but I also love providing arts for the community. We’ve accomplished so much there. [The Santa Cecilia Orchestra] has provided free violin lessons to over 200 children a year. For two years we have had a summer camp for kids where they get violin lessons, experience in acting, musical theatre, and painting. We also have an adult musical education program called “Música del pueblo.” It’s for people who used to play instruments, maybe in high school or college, who put music to the side. There’s coaching and playing of music.

We also have our “Teddy Bear Concerts” for babies and toddlers where we play music geared to them. We encourage them to bring their dolls and we finish it up with a milk and cookies reception. Hopefully when people come to hear us … they’ll learn that we have so much more than the orchestra.

The Santa Cecilia Orchestra | Rodolfo Vega

One of the great and unique things about the Santa Cecilia Orchestra is that it performs much Latin American classical music. Why does this repertoire matter?

It was important for me as a Latina to include music by Latinos in our programs. In years past when orchestras did perform music by Latinos, they’d usually be segregated in separate programs with, say, a “fiesta” theme. I remember that one of our first concerts included music by Aaron Copland and the Sinfonía India by Carlos Chávez, and someone came up to me and said, “Those two composers don’t belong together.” But they were, in fact, great friends who admired each other’s music and drank tequila together. So they absolutely go together.

We’ve also done several premieres of works by Latino composers. What’s really rewarding is performing the music of Chávez or [Silvestre] Revueltas for the Mexican families that attend our concerts. And they’ll tell me, “We didn’t know that Mexico had composers, too!” So we’re not only introducing Anglo audiences to this music, but even to Latinos. And this is their music. But people also love it when we do Brahms and Beethoven. For a lot of them, this music is new and it’s a very powerful experience.

Go here for more information about the Santa Cecilia Orchestra’s 25th anniversary season.

Photo by Rodolfo Vega

Néstor Castiglione is a journalist born and raised in Los Angeles who also writes and lectures on classical music and the popular music of Japan, 1925 – 1945.

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