Composer Tania León, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music and a Kennedy Center honoree
Tania León will serve as the 2024 Russell Sage College commencement speaker.

Composer Tania León, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music and a Kennedy Center honoree, will deliver the keynote speech at the 2024 Russell Sage College commencement ceremony on May 11. The ceremony will be held at 6 p.m. in MVP Arena in Albany.

León’s orchestral work, Stride, which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 2022, she was named a recipient of the 45th Annual Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime artistic achievements.

A composer, conductor, and educator, León’s body of works includes orchestra, opera, ballet, chorus, chamber, musical theater, solos and works set to poetry.

León was born in Havana, Cuba, and left for New York in 1967 as a 24-year-old refugee. There, she continued her music study, earning a bachelor’s and master’s at NYU, and in 1969 becoming a founding member and the first music director of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, establishing its music department, music school, and orchestra.

“I come from a very poor family, a family integrated by people of different cultures,” León told Tom Huizenga for an NPR story in December 2022. “But what we had in common was the fact that we were poor and dreaming of something that was virtually impossible. It was my grandmother who got an idea that I liked music because of the way I reacted to music on the radio. She would tell me, ‘You’re going to see your name in the marquees of the theaters.’ And I saw these people scraping pennies, literally, to provide me with my education.”

Today, she serves as the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence — a two-year post that began in September 2023 and also holds Carnegie Hall’s Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair for its 2023-2024 season.

“We are honored that Tania León, a world-class leader in contemporary classical music, has agreed to join us and address our graduates,” said Russell Sage President Christopher Ames. “Her life and the richness and breadth of her work will inspire our graduates as they begin their own careers.”

León was the first woman to be honored with the highest composition prize conferred by Spain and has received the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award and multiple honorary degrees. Russell Sage will add to those accolades by presenting her with an honorary Doctoral degree during the ceremony.

The college will also award an honorary degree to President Ames, who will retire on June 30 after leading Russell Sage for seven years.

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