Sonia Marie De León de Vega Bringing Classical Music to L.A. Latinos, One Family at a Time

By Louise Burton on Oct 24, 2013 06:13 PM EDT

Maestra Sonia Marie De León de Vega takes the stage. She's greeted with enthusiastic applause from an audience of families with young children, teenagers and young adults. About 80 percent of the audience members are Latino. The unusual demographics of this concert, presented by the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Los Angeles last season, are the result De León de Vega's tireless effort and advocacy.

Sonia Marie De León de Vega is one of very few Latina conductors in the U.S. This season, she will lead the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in three subscription concerts, starting with a concert of "Water Music" on October 27 at Occidental College in L.A. The program holds excerpts from Gluck's Orfeo et Euridice, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and, of course, Handel's Water Music.

De León de Vega comes from a musical family; she began taking piano lessons at the age of five. Hearing Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 as a six-year-old was a life-changing experience for her. Because she was studying piano, she was able to ask her teacher if she could play more Beethoven.

Now, Sonia Marie De León de Vega wants other Latino children to have the same opportunity.

"I started the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in 1992, specifically to take music to Latino communities," the maestra explains. "I grew up going to classical music concerts. I didn't see Latinos at classical music concerts, and I didn't see families--not of any color."

De León de Vega studied music in college, becoming an accomplished pianist and organist. She took up conducting in graduate school and began specializing in that field, at a time when hardly any conductor was both female and a minority. De León de Vega went on to train at American Symphony Orchestra League workshops with Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti, among other outstanding conductors.

She spent the next few years as a guest conductor of orchestras in Mexico and Europe. During her travels in Mexico and Italy, she began to notice that families did attend symphonic concerts.

"I thought, if they can go there, why can't they go here?" she asks. "And this was my goal, to bring families to classical music concerts, to make it accessible, by putting the concerts in their own community, and by making it financially possible for them to attend."

Upon founding the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, at first, she found it difficult to interest members of Hispanic communities in attending orchestral concerts.

That's when the maestra decided to start an educational program: Discovering Music.

Discovering Music brings SCO musicians into elementary schools to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra, as well as classical music at large. Today, this program serves more than 20,000 students each year, while also providing free violin lessons to some 200 young string players.

De León de Vega's goal of building an audience--family by family--has clearly paid off. She happily reports that 1,000 people regularly attend Santa Cecilia Orchestra concerts now. "It's taken 19 years of work," she says, "but...we have a full audience, and they are primarily Latinos, and primarily families."

For more information about Sonia Marie De León de Vega and her Santa Cecilia Orchestra, please visit

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TagsSonia Marie De León de Vega, Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Occidental College, Water Music, Gluck, Beethoven, Handel, Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Discovering Music

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