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Taking the lead to keep classical music alive among a new generation

Professional symphony music conductor Sonia Marie De León de Vega shares her love of classical music with families and Latino communities through programs and concerts that bring classical music “home.”

LatinaLista — When most young girls dream of a career in music, it usually includes visions of strutting across a stage in a sexy outfit and belting out a hit song while muscular dancers shadow their every move before an audience of screaming and adoring fans.

Not so for Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega. Even from a young age, Sonia knew her musical path would involve no sexy outfits or sweaty dancers. Yet, she did know that everyone on stage would be following her lead, there would be applauding audiences and she would perform the kind of music hits that can only be described as “timeless classics.”

Sonia Marie De León de Vega is a symphony orchestra conductor. Born in San Antonio, Texas into a family of professional entertainers, Sonia felt a calling to pursue classical music.

The Santa Cecilia Orchestra performs the program “Fate and Passion” at the Alex Theatre, in Glendale, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006. Sonia Marie de León De Vega, Music director/conductor.
(Photos by Damian Dovarganes)


“As a very young girl, I read the biographies of the great composers: Beethoven, Bach, Mahler, Chopin, Mozart and it was the story of their lives that inspired me to choose the classical music field,” Sonia said. “I loved this music so much that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping keep it alive.”

After her family moved to California from Texas, Sonia’s father bought her a $50 piano, jumpstarting her music studies. At 17, she studied organ and it wasn’t long after enrolling in the music program at California State University, and reluctantly taking Conducting 101, when she learned just what a natural talent she had for the art and how hard it really was.

“Many think that the conductor isn’t doing anything, just waving their arms around,” explained Sonia. “It’s much more complicated than that. There is actually conducting technique and much work that goes into it. The work is musical, mental, physical and even emotional.”

As she developed her skills, Sonia studied with numerous famous conductors and her love for classical music grew deeper.

“There is so much beauty and depth in classical music,” Sonia shared. “I find it emotionally powerful and there is beauty in it that I can find nowhere else.”

However, in a field that has historically been dominated by men, Sonia knew her aspiration to conduct an orchestra was not going to be achieved easily.

Breaking into it at a time when there was not a woman yet conducting a symphony orchestra, Sonia didn’t receive a lot of encouragement.

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The Santa Cecilia Orchestra led by Sonia Marie de León De Vega, Music director/conductor.
(Photos by Damian Dovarganes)

“When attending an international conducting workshop, I was the only female amongst 40 male conductors,” Sonia remembered. “The teacher told me that a woman would never be accepted on a stage conducting a symphony orchestra, not in our lifetime. ”

Sonia didn’t believe it. Taking to heart the Chinese proverb “Those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those doing it,” Sonia persisted. Her perseverance led her to achieve such a level of success that she received a special Vatican invitation to conduct a symphony orchestra at a Papal Mass. Sonia was only the second guest conductor in 150 years and the first woman in Vatican history to receive the honor.

After her Vatican appearance, Sonia accepted invitations to guest conduct and traveled widely. It was during this time that she became acutely aware of two things: in other countries, children, with their families, enjoyed classical music concerts together, and the world of classical music had done “a fabulous job in excluding people of color, of lower economic means and underserved communities.”

Sonia aimed to change that. In honor of her father, who had a devout devotion to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, Sonia founded, in 1992, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra to bring classical music into underserved communities. She also created the “Discovering Music” program that sends orchestra members out to elementary schools in underserved Latino neighborhoods. The musicians introduce the children to the instruments and classical compositions.

“I wanted classical music to become part of the lives of Latinos in the very communities in which they live,” said Sonia. “We reach 20,000 children and their families every year through our ‘Discovering Music’ program. We go to 16 schools a year into every classroom to present our program. We invite these children and their families to attend our concert free-of-charge. We also teach children to play the violin and have a middle school mentorship program.”

Striving to erase the “snootiness” found at most classical music concerts, Sonia is proud that 90 percent of her concert audience is Latino and families. She works hard to ensure that her audiences receive the same kind of performances found at major symphony concert halls around the world.

Sonia and her musicians rehearse only twice before a performance. She programs the concert season and selects every piece for each concert. Declaring that she chooses music that she wants to introduce to her audiences, Sonia assigns a theme to each program.

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Then she studies and memorizes the selected music. She devotes about 2 hours of study per minute of music. With each concert featuring 60 minutes of music, Sonia spends a total of 120 hours studying the music for each concert.

When asked who her favorite composer and composition are, Sonia has no trouble choosing.

“My favorite composer would have to be Beethoven. I love his music and passion. I can hear his life in the music; I can hear his joy or suffering. He is an extremely powerful composer. I also adore Brahms and that is my very favorite to conduct. There is so much there to love and discover and the result is pure, true magic.”

Sonia reveals that when she is conducting, the only thoughts she has are of the music and the musicians, but always in the back of her mind is the hope that her young audiences can see from her example and aspire to accomplish their own dreams.

“Not everyone wants to be a conductor; as a matter of fact, I could bet there are very few out there,” Sonia conceded. “So my advice to anyone who wants to do anything in this life is to dream, be persistent and passionate about what you do, be strategic in planning out your career — and you can do anything you set your dreams on.”

(Editor’s Note: The Santa Cecilia Orchestra (SCO) can also be found on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. Patrons can keep up with the latest news about concerts and the orchestra on their blog. In keeping with their mission of making classical music accessible to everyone, the SCO website features interactive links for parents, educators and children to learn about classical music, the composers and instruments.)

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  • Richard Yniguez
    August 17, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Dear Latina Lista!
    What an informative & insightful article on a very talented Latina that we are all very proud of! All to often the classics are over looked in all areas but it’s nice to see that Sonia is keeping the tradition alive!
    Latina Lista please keep these kind of stories alive….our community deserve to know its talented entertainers!
    Big hug,
    Richard Yniguez

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