By Claudia S. Palma
Photo by Walt Mancini
A young girl used music as a way to connect with her father. As a grown woman, she uses music to connect with the community, especially the Latin community.
Sonia Marie De León de Vega formed the Santa Cecilia Orchestra 20 years ago specifically to bring classical music to Latino families in Eagle Rock and surrounding communities.
Through the orchestra, she also began “Discovering Music” in 1998, a two-year music education program that brings instruments into more than a dozen elementary schools throughout Los Angeles County ,and in the hands of students.
“(Starting the orchestra) was very personal. I wanted to serve my own community,” said De León de Vega. “I wanted to take the arts to the schools. The kids need that or else they wouldn’t have that opportunity.”
Another reason to create the orchestra was so the Texas-born Latina could lead it. While she is not the first female conductor, when De León de Vega began her path to conducting, she faced some obstacles in the male-dominated field, and sometimes because of her ethnicity.
“This isn’t the only unusual profession for women. I tell people, they have to follow their dream, their passion,” she said. “Music is my passion. Music saved my life.
“One of the reasons I got into music, was to get (my father’s) attention,” she admits.
Her father, the late Reynaldo Sanchez, traveled a lot as a vocalist and guitarist in a traditional Mexican musical trio. With a traveling musician father and a noted actress mother, who is now a pop artist promoter, it was not a surprise De León de Vega began her music instruction early. But she never imagined where it would lead her.
“I never thought when I was a child that I would be conducting music,” she said. “I’m making music by conducting it and choosing the programs. (It’s because of conducting) that I got to start this orchestra.”
De León de Vega discovered Beethoven at age 6 from flipping through radio stations. She quickly told her piano teacher and said she wanted to play Beethoven. Her teacher advised her to take it one step at a time. While formally studying music in college, she took a mandatory conducting class and her instructor saw her natural ability and suggested it as a major.
She didn’t think much of it at the time but saw that there weren’t many women conducting and the few that were, were working with opera orchestras and symphonies.
When she began conducting professionally, she worked mostly in Europe and Mexico. She was the first woman to conduct a symphony for a Papal Mass at the Vatican, but orchestras in the United States weren’t too interested.
“I definitely feel unique “ as a Latina conductor, De Leon de Vega said. “It’s still rare.”
There have been a few female conductors in Los Angeles and of those, few are Latina yet De León de Vega said she doesn’t feel much different than any other conductor.
“(After a concert I conducted,) someone said to me, ‘what’s your background? You can’t be Mexican, you have to be mixed.’ I hated that,” she recalls.
But after a concert with SCO, De León de Vega was approached by a young girl who innocently asked her if men can also conduct.
“Here’s a little girl watching me conduct and thinking a woman does this all the time,” she smiles.
De León de Vega admits she has been discriminated against from other conductors but never from her orchestra.
“You have to build respect. It takes time,” she said. “(The orchestra) just wants someone that knows what they’re doing, to act professionally.”
Soon after the death of her father, De León de Vega was inspired to create her own orchestra.
In 1992, she honored him by naming the orchestra after his favorite saint — Santa Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
“I think (my father) would really be surprised. I think he would be very pleased.” she said.
The orchestra’s 20th anniversary is in June. The celebrating will come at the beginning of the new season later this year.
“It does feel like 20 years: It’s been a lot of work,” said De León de Vega. “The growth has been great.”
SCO has come a long way since its first concert which had an audience of about a dozen people in a church. Now it draws a thousand people to the concerts that are held in various places, but most recently in Thorne Hall at nearby Occidental College. The orchestra has rehearsals at Seventh Day Church in Eagle Rock.
At frst, “people thought we were crazy (to try and reach a Latino audience) but when you have culture, you have beauty. I wanted to bring beauty (to the Latin community),” said De León de Vega. “They get it now. They come back. Someone said we’re building an audience one family at a time.”
The concerts feature classical works from various noted composers such as Brahms and Gershwin as well as at least one Latino composer’s work, such as Carlos Chávez. One show each a season is dedicated completely to works from Latin composers.
“Sonia’s very excellent as far as programming,” said Rodolfo Vega, associate director of SCO. “It’s such where people are attracted to it. They’re moved by it. We see their faces, of families (when they first arrive at a concert). They’re skeptical at first, but they’re surprised at their kids’ behavior. They’re transformed by it.”
At the April concert, ‘Latinos Clasicos’, SCO performed Yalil Guerra’s ‘Old Havana,’ a world premiere, and ‘Leyenda de Miliano’ by Arturo Márquez, a Los Angeles premiere. Both Guerra and Marquez are still alive.
“(Guerra) is the youngest composer we’ve featured (that’s still alive),” said De León de Vega.
“It’s wonderful to get the composer’s feedback,” she said. “Conducting is bringing that composer’s heart to life. You can’t just follow the notes (on sheet music), it has to come to life so the audience can feel that too. That’s what’s great about symphonic music, you can feel whatever you want.”
Guerra, a Havana native began his classical music training at a young age as well with his parents playing a big influence.
“(I started) singing with my parents, then I started the guitar,” said the 39-year-old. “I always had it in my mind that I wanted to be a composer.”
Guerra studied guitar and composition in Spain. He has written 30 classical works and composed more than 100 pop songs.
“My school background is classical, but at the same time I had the popular background because of my parents,” he said. “Learning to switch between the two took me some time.”
‘Old Havana,’ composed in 2009 and the title to his first classical album, was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2010.
Guerra is emotional as he hears his work performed by SCO for the first time during a rehearsal for Latinos Clasicos.
“I’m thankful, and so honored, that this will stay in music history records. That (De León de Vega) was the conductor and SCO the orchestra, and performed all while the composer was alive,” he reflects. “That’s very important. Imagine having to wait 150 years for your work to be played. As composers, we have to wait to see how it is presented. With Sonia, I’m in good hands.”
Guerra had been sharing his compositions with Sonia for awhile. He finally asked her one day if she would want to premiere ‘Old Havana’ with SCO and she was more than willing. Guerra had another piece premiere in an L.A. piano concert in May.
“Music is an art that transmits energy when you feel the vibration of the orchestra, you can feel empathy,” he said. “What Sonia and SCO is doing is great — bringing music to the L.A. community and the Latino community. They’re giving them the opportunity to afford to pay a concert ticket, because many venues are expensive. They’re treated to an excellent and tasteful concert with great music in abeautiful hall. The price is incredible.”
Little hands make big sounds
Whether it creates future musicians or future doctors, music education is an important part of a child’s upbringing, De Leon de Vega said. The orchestra’s Discovering Music program’s motto is “Music is for everyone.”
Dodi, her 14-year-old son, has taken music lessons since he was a toddler.
“I don’t believe he’ll be a musician,” she admits. “But it’s a great thing to do, especially for children, to build their self esteem. We live in a world of instant gratification. Playing an instrument, you have to take the time to learn. You have to play every day. You have to practice and put the effort in.”
Through Discovering Music, SCO reaches about 200 students in third through sixth grades each year at more than a dozen elementary schools, most in northeast Los Angeles. The program has been in about 35 schools as close as Pasadena and as far away as Pomona.
“When we reach our schools, it’s really intimate,” said Vega. “We send four to six musicians into the classrooms with different instruments to teach them to play.”
The program works to reach schools without music programs or have limited programs. SCO changes the schools they serve every two years.
“It’s like you’re opening a door (the students) didn’t know was there. A door to opportunity,” said De León de Vega. “The kids get inspired. They get to find out about what a bassoon is, an oboe.”
The program has a string program in some schools, as well as mentoring programs in some middle schools.
“Next year we will start with second grade,” said De León de Vega. “We have youth orchestras in several schools (as part of the program). The future goal would be to bring them together for a larger orchestra.”
Students in the program are then invited along with their families to one of SCO’s concerts.
“In our experience, students have to drag their parents, many of them because they haven’t been exposed to (classical music) before,” said Vega. “Music can transform people’s lives, we see it. It’s moving that we see different age groups, many different ethnicities. It’s a unique experience.”
An hour before each concert, SCO offers audience members a special experience with ‘Make Music!’ Adults and children alike are invited to feel and play with instruments with orchestra musicians, in each of the orchestra families: strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion.
SCO has received most of its support for the Discovering Music program from foundations.
“One of the things we never cut back on is the kids programs, it’s our mission,” said Vega.
De León de Vega and SCO continue their mission of bringing the beauty of music to the masses with their 2012-13 season this fall.
“There’s still a lot of great music I would like to perform,” she said. “There’s a lot of power in beauty, a lot of power in culture. When you hear it and you see it, you’re impacted.”
For more on De León de Vega, SCO and Discovering Music, visit scorchestra.org. For more on Yalil Guerra, visit yalilguerra.com