Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega: The People’s Conductor

Mar 25, 2010

I met Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega a couple of years ago and was immediately struck by her intelligence, passion and intensity. Statuesque, with tumbling black hair and a commanding, smiling presence, simultaneously sensual and intellectual, she could be a character from an Isabel Allende novel:  dashing, generous, grounded and forceful.

Sonia surprised me when she said she was an orchestra conductor; you just don’t meet many Latinas in that line of work. But if Sonia has her way, that will change, at least in Los Angeles. As conductor and executive director of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, she is realizing her desire to “bring music to the community, rather than bring the community to the music.”

Sonia was born into a long line of musicians (her mother is an actress and producer) and has been playing piano since she was five years old. She was the first woman in history to be invited to conduct an orchestra at a Papal Mass. She founded the Santa Cecilia Orchestra (SCO) in 1992, in honor of her father. When he got cancer at the age of 56, his dying wish was to see the tomb of Saint Cecilia, patron of musicians, in Rome. Sonia was headed to Italy to conduct and took her father. At the tomb, he sang to the saint; he died just a few weeks later. Soon, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra came into being.

The orchestra’s mission (Sonia calls it “the heart of SCO”) is to take classical music to the Latino community. Through the Discovering Music program, 24 orchestra members (called “outreach musicians”) visit classrooms to play for students as young as 6. A year of visits culminates when the students – and, importantly, their families – are invited to attend a free performance. “I’m totally against packing students into an auditorium once a year, under protest, where they’ll just get in trouble,” she says. “I want them to have a relationship with the performer and the instrument, and to bring their families along.” Strong mentoring and music lessons, plus free weekly violin lessons for more than 250 children a year, are also part of the program, which has been acclaimed as a model for the nation. Annually, the orchestra works with 16 schools, giving more than 1,000 performances in Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Pacoima and Wilmington.

Sonia calls the SCO “professional, exciting and happy.” Twelve players have been with the 80-piece orchestra since its inception. The SCO had its best financial year ever last year, all the while adhering to Sonia’s mission: “We refuse to dumb down the music, and we engage the community at the grass roots.”

The SCO regularly performs at Occidental College’s Thorne Hall and the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts. Sonia serves as the conductor and executive director (both usually full-time jobs) as well as chief fundraiser (she also sits on the board of the California Community Foundation). She lives with her husband, a marriage and family therapist, and their 11-year-old son in Glassell Park.

Sonia and Mel met at Ca Cao Mexicatessen in Eagle Rock, sharing venison, duck and squash-blossom tacos along with thoughts on music, community and good food.

Mel: Describe a day in the life of a conductor (that would be you!)

Sonia: I wake up at 5 a.m. with my list of things to do in my head. I spend some time writing things down and organizing, and then I take a walk. After breakfast I head to the SCO office, where I’ll do a number of tasks: fundraising, board development, artistic planning, working on our school program. If we are close to a concert I’ll spend time at the office learning the music. It takes one and a half hours to learn each minute of music the orchestra will play, so I begin to work on a concert three to six months from the performance. We only have two rehearsals, so everybody has to be well prepared, especially me. At night, after dinner, I study the score some more, analyzing the music and reading up on the composer and his intent, listening to recordings. To keep up with the physical demands of conducting, I have a routine of weights and cardio. Statistically, conductors live a long time, because we have to be in shape!

What’s your musical inspiration?

My inspiration is from my audience — those who will be listening to classical music for the first time at one of our concerts and our regulars (from as far away as Beverly Hills and Pomona) who attend concert after concert and who clearly love it. I’m inspired by the children who tell me that listening to our concert was the most beautiful and powerful thing that they have ever heard, and by the teenage girl who recently e-mailed me to tell me that our music “touched her soul deeply.”

What are your favorite orchestra pieces?

Oh, this is a difficult question! My favorite piece is the one I’m conducting or studying.I have too many pieces that I love to only name one, but I have many favorite composers. Among them are Brahms, Beethoven and Respighi.

What’s on your iPod?

I love all kinds of music; there’s a lot on there. I really love the music of Hawaii, Arabic music, opera and classical, of course.

How do you program a concert?

I like to always introduce something new. I love to cook, and I always consider what courses to serve, what goes with what. Our opening piece is like the appetizer, and the closing piece is the dessert. On April 25 we will celebrate the Mexican bicentennial; we’re the only orchestra to do that. We are preparing six pieces that span the history of Mexico; I’m thinking of this as a buffet. The best crowd pleaser is the one that the audience was not expecting. Taking the audience by surprise and introducing them to a beautiful piece of music is always great.

Where do you go to recharge?

I go to Hawaii once a year. I spend one week on the north shore of Oahu and a week on the north shore of Kauai. I snorkel every day and don’t do much else! As a family, some of our favorite places to go are bookstores. One of our very favorites is Vroman’s in Pasadena. We enjoy the beautiful displays and great books they have. A perfect Sunday would include breakfast at Dish in La Cañada, a walk at Descanso Gardens, looking at beautiful art at the Norton Simon Museum, then dinner at Roy’s in Pasadena. We are all Hawaii addicts, so any reminder of the Islands is a treat for us.

What’s your favorite after-performance place to hang out?

Columbo’s in Eagle Rock! They have the best drinks, great food and always live music.

Is music a necessity or a luxury?

Music is a necessity. Can anyone out there even imagine life without music?

Editor’s note: The Santa Cecilia Orchestra next performs on Sunday, April 25 at 4 p.m. at Occidental College.



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