New York Times Music Review
Tania León: A Composer Who Sends Atonality on a Caribbean Cruise
by Anthony Tommasini
Cultural clash is at the core of music by the composer Tania León. Born in Cuban in 1943 and trained at a conservatory in Havana, Ms. León, who is of mixed French, Spanish, African and Chinese descent, immersed herself in complex Western contemporary music techniques when she moved to the United States in 1967. Her career has included conducting and composing for Dance Theater of Harlem, working as music director of "The Wiz" on Broadway and
teaching composition at Brooklyn College.
Naturally, these distinctive styles clash in her music, though in a dynamic sense, as in a good fight, a feisty confrontation. Usually the confrontation produces a vibrant though slightly uneasy conversation, as in sin normas ajenas, her bracing work for large chamber ensemble, which opened a concert of Ms. León's works on Saturday night at Columbia University's Miller Theater, part of the Composer Portraits series. The core players were the four members of Mosaic, a technically deft, adventurous ensemble of flute (Zizi Mueller), cello (Edward Arron), piano (Emma Tahmizian) and percussion (Daniel Druckman). For this concert Mosaic was joined by a roster of excellent players and, in two works, the conductor Rand Steiger.
In sin normas ajenas ("without another's norms") Ms. León boldly finds common ground between an astringent atonal style, complete with dense counterpoint and wildly zigzagging melodic lines, and Caribbean rhythms. The healthy clash was even more overt in the propulsive and breathless A La Par, scored just for piano and percussion (Ms. Tahmizian and Mr. Druckman). In the opening section, it was fun to see the heads of young listeners nodding to the sneaky hints of Caribbean rhythms with which Ms. León animates her tart atonal harmonies. And there was many heads in motion on this night, for the concert attracted a large, mostly young and encouragingly diverse audience.
Ms. León conducted Indigena, for large chamber ensemble including strings, music that seemed her hip homage to the Neo-Classical works of Schoenberg, though bit by bit the work starts to sound like a strangely atonal Latino dance band, capped by a take-it-away solo cadenza for trumpet (Wayne DuMaine).
Azulejos, composed in 2003, which received its New York
premiere, is intense, hard-driving yet elusive. A hidden Latin American dance rhythm provides a fixed point upon which she attaches other overlapping and enormously varied rhythmic patterns. Though the music has an organic sweep, perhaps that hidden unifying rhythm is too hidden. The work seemed not just episodic but arbitrary. Yet it certainly held the audience, which erupted in cheers.
After all this intensity it was a perfect touch to end the
program with a solo aria, a mother's prayer, from Ms. León's opera Scourge of Hyacinths. This was ruminative, melancholic, quietly elegiac music, sung with wistful
beauty by the soprano Susan Narucki, accompanied only by piano and solo cello.
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