Sonia de León de Vega: 1964—: Conductor Biography
When Sonia de León de Vega heard her first Beethoven symphony as a child, she decided to find out all she could about the composer. This inspiration helped launch her life long love affair with classical music that eventually led to her becoming a conductor. In 1986 de Vega conducted the Papal Mass at St. Peter's Ba-silica, and for several years she traveled broadly as a guest conductor for operas and orchestras. She formed the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Los Angeles in 1992 in an effort to bring classical music to the Latino community, and has administered children's programs designed to aid schools without music programs. "I felt it was important," de Vega told Contemporary Hispanic Biography, "to go out to the community instead of making them come to us." In 2000 de Vega was voted "Outstanding Latina Woman of the Year" by Unison and other corporations. Of one concert Richard Ginell of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Sonia Marie De León de Vega's conducting picked up added sweep and energy … "
De Vega was born in San Antonio, Texas, and was surrounded by music from an early age. Her father, Reynaldo Sánchez, fronted a trio and she hid behind the sofa, pretending to conduct his band as it rehearsed. Her sister, Carla de León, would later record for the Fonovisa label. Her mother, Sonia de León worked as an actress and producer. "I come from a 'show business' family," de Vega told CHB, "Everyone was involved in the entertainment business. So my following a music career seemed a natural and was highly encouraged by my family." When de Vega was three, her family moved to Fresno, California, and later, relocated to Los Angeles. When she was five, her father bought a $50 piano and she began lessons. Although de Vega grew up listening to the same pop music as many of her peers in Echo Park, her favorite music was classical. After high school she entered California State University where Dr. David Buck encouraged her to study conducting in graduate school.
In 1986 de Vega was invited to the Vatican to conduct at St. Peter's Basilica. It was only the second time a guest had been invited to conduct a Papal Mass in 150 years, and the first time a woman had received the invitation. "The invitation to the Vatican was very important for my career because it was very newsworthy," de Vega noted to CHB, "Therefore I received tons of publicity from it." Between 1986 and 1992, de Vega traveled to a number of communities as a guest conductor. During her travels, she realized that the venues she visited often failed to reach all members of the community. "In Mexico and Italy I saw concerts that were filled with families and children unlike what I had seen here," de Vega told CHB. "I felt that we had to get these families and children to concerts just like they would have the opportunity in their own country." She began to formulate the idea of taking classical music into the community. "I saw a need to take music to the community," she told Diana Terry-Azíos in Hispanic, "I wanted to make it accessible to people."
Other events also shaped De Vega's belief that certain communities were being underserved. In an article in Hispanic Magazine, she recalled an incidence of prejudice directed toward her and her husband while attending a concert. She had leaned forward to gain a better view, when the person behind her, de Vega told Terry-Azíos, said, "You people don't belong here. You people don't know a thing about classical music." Although she was offended, de Vega realized that this sort of incident could never occur at one of her concerts: a Latino member of the audience would only have to point to the conductor on the stage to prove otherwise. "It makes them feel good to see me conduct," she told Terry-Azíos, "because I am one of them." Being a Latina has also brought unique challenges to de Vega's career. "… [A] female conductor was not very common at all," she told CHB, "especially when I began in 1986. Being a Latina only made it harder."
In 1992 de Vega founded the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, named for the patron of musicians, and dedicated to the memory of her father who died in 1991. "He had a devotion to Saint Cecilia," she recalled. "I could think of no greater tribute to him than to name the orchestra I founded a year later the Santa Cecilia Orchestra." Unlike other orchestras, Santa Cecilia would bring classical music to underserved communities. De Vega also initiated several social outreach programs from Santa Cecilia, including "Discovering Music," a program that visited elementary schools with a limited musical curriculum. The program has been de Vega's favorite. "The response from the children," she told Terry-Azíos, "is what really keeps me going." The program begins by introducing one instrument to a class, and then builds one instrument at a time until the entire orchestra performs at the school. De Vega planned to expand the program to 48 schools by 2002. "Music offers self-esteem," de Vega told Hispanic. "When children have music in their lives, they get to work at something and see results and learn discipline."
De Vega married Rodolfo Vega in 1993, and they have one child, Rodolfo Joaquín. She has maintained a busy schedule managing the orchestra, "but never at the expense of my family," she told CHB. Besides the orchestra, she has continued to produce and direct "Opera Under the Stars." The venue has provided her the opportunity to launch a number of talented individual's careers, and in 2002, celebrated its tenth season. She has also been active in public service, conducting a number of children's programs for the City of Los Angeles's Cultural Affairs Department. In the future, she hopes to reach out to even more children by offering education information on the Internet. De Vega also plans to start a children's choir and orchestra in 2003, and she would like to see more Latinos become involved in classical music. "I don't know if I will ever be the best," De Vega told CHB, "but I will know that I tried my best and right now I feel like the best is yet to come."
Hispanic, May 2000, pp. 78, 79.
Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2000, p. 8.
http://www.scorchestra.org/index.html, (May 25, 2002).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Hispanic Biography on June 26, 2002.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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