In the 1990s, composer Tania León was appointed New Music Advisor to the New York Philharmonic. But the orchestra did not play any of their works at the time.
It made up for the lost time in February 2020 when the Philharmonic as part of their Project 19 initiative, for which they created 19 women composers on the occasion of the centenary of the 19th Amendment that prohibits states from denying women the right to vote.
On Friday, “Stride” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. It is a culminating honor in the career of a now 78-year-old composer who grew up in Cuba; found a basis for percussive dance works in New York; created a series of memorable orchestral pieces that are pervaded by intricate Latin American rhythmic grooves; and became an outspoken advocate of cultural diversity in music. She was also a pioneering conductor and currently directs the wide-ranging Composers Now festival.
Ms. León, who found out about the price on Friday when she left her dental office, said she started crying at the news. “My mother and grandmother were maids when they were 8 years old,” she said in a telephone interview. “My family had so much hope for me and the new generation to give us an education, and when something big has happened in my life, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.”
Inspired by the courage of the women in her family and by the suffragist Susan B. Anthony, the 15-minute “Stride” is not purely optimistic. Open brass fanfares sweep through the entire piece, a kind of periodic announcement, and jazzy brass solos snake out of the orchestral structures, but there is always a dark, restless energy lurking.
Composer Ellen Reid, who won the Pulitzer in 2019 and was on this year’s awards committee, said she heard the Philharmonic on Stride at Lincoln Center last year.
“It was one of the last appearances before the pandemic,” she said on the phone. “Tania has a way of weaving so many musical traditions together with such joy. She’s just such a wonderful ambassador for music and her love is infectious. “
Explosive bells ring out at the end of the piece: “Every time I think about it,” said Ms. León, “I want to hear more – all the bells of the nation.” But underneath a West African beat shuffles – a reminder that black women originally were excluded from the right granted by the 19th Amendment.
“Under all these celebratory bells,” said Ms. León, “there is still some kind of fight going on.
Struggle and movement.
“It’s very nice to be recognized,” she added. “But the greatest gain of my life is that I was able to realize a dream that began in a very small place, far away from here, with people who are no longer here. That’s what ‘Stride’ is all about for me: moving forward. “
Joshua Barone contributed to the coverage.