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Musician Sonia De Leon de Vega was once told that a woman could never be a conductor. In response, she formed her own ensemble, the Santa Cecilia Orchesta, named for the patron saint of music. As music director and conductor, De Leon de Vega is using the Los Angeles-based orchestra to draw Latino families into concert halls. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has her story.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Outside the concert hall at Occidental College in LA's Eagle Rock neighborhood, children are invited to test out the instruments the Santa Cecilia Orchestra will play later.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: Go up and down. There you go.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 2: Nice, long, remember?

DEL BARCO: Eight-year-old Alexa Media Rodriguez says she and her family have never before been to an orchestra concert. She heard about Santa Cecilia's free shows when some of the musicians visited her school.

ALEX MEDIA RODRIGUEZ: I brought my dad, my stepmom, my sister, my brother and my sister's cousin.

SONIA DE LEON DE VEGA: The children are bringing the parents.

DEL BARCO: Conductor Sonia Marie De Leon De Vega.

DE LEON DE VEGA: What's happening on stage is wonderful, but another thing that's great at our concerts is what's happening in the audience. Our audience is about 80, 85 percent Latino and families at concerts.

DEL BARCO: That's how it should be, she says.

DE LEON DE VEGA: In Mexico, we go to Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. People are there on a Sunday afternoon with an entire family, grandchildren to grandparents. And I thought, wow, I would love for that to exist back home.

DEL BARCO: So in 1992, she founded the Santa Cecilia Orchestra.


DEL BARCO: The 85 musicians are paid professionals who play with other symphonies and in Hollywood studios. De Leon De Vega started with $2,000 of her own money and now has a staff of three. Her orchestra's played in concert halls, amphitheaters and at universities all over her adopted home of Los Angeles.


DEL BARCO: De Leon de Vega was born in San Antonio, TX to a Mexican-American showbiz family. Her mother was a dancer, singer and actress. And her father sang and played guitar in a trio.


DE LEON DE VEGA: He was a wonderful singer. A very handsome man also. I remember being very little and hiding behind the couch and pretending to conduct while he was having his rehearsals with his fellow musicians.

DEL BARCO: When she was 5 years old, De Leon de Vega began playing piano. By then, the family had moved to the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. She recently went back to her old elementary school to talk to the kids about music.

DE LEON DE VEGA: I played in the schoolyard and walked these halls and it was always - even at that age, I had a really strong feeling to one day come back. And I thought, I will never forget what this is like, being a child.

DEL BARCO: As a little girl, she says, music was her refuge.

DE LEON DE VEGA: I was definitely, you know, the nerd and the person that the bullies would pick on. I was actually beat up numerous times at this school. I was very shy, I was very quiet, I just wanted to go back home. You know, and I think music saved me.

DEL BARCO: She eventually became a piano major at California State University Los Angeles, where one of her professors encouraged her to take up the baton. But a well-known conductor she doesn't want to name told her to quit.

DE LEON DE VEGA: He said a woman will never be allowed to conduct a symphony orchestra on stage in our lifetime. That will never ever exist. Of course I couldn't believe that. It just discouraged me for about a minute and that was it.

DEL BARCO: De Leon de Vega began guest conducting. She invited her father to go with her on one gig to Rome to fulfill his last wish - to visit the tomb of Santa Cecilia. After he died of cancer a few weeks later, she started putting together her orchestra.

DE LEON DE VEGA: He always prayed to Saint Cecilia before he sang. And in his honor, I named it after the patron saint of music. And she was Roman, so the name is Cecilia. And we have a Spanish name too - Orquesta Santa Cecilia.


DEL BARCO: The Santa Cecilia Orchestra has introduced its audiences to the music of such Latin-American composers as Arturo Marquez of Mexico and Argentina's Astor Pazzolla. To build those audiences, she launched her Discovering Music program, where musicians visit local public schools. Eight-year-old Luna Castillo and 10-year-old Jennifer Roberts were inspired to come to the concerts.

LUNA CASTILLO: It was like heroic music. The sound was, like, serious.

JENNIFER ROBERTS: I'm just blown away every time.

DEL BARCO: Conductor Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega says music does more than just teach rhythm or melody.

DE LEON DE VEGA: I believe that if a child holds an instrument, like these students that we've given violins and lessons, they will not take a drug. They will not hold a gun. It's that powerful.

DEL BARCO: De Leon de Vega says she once got an e-mail from a girl who watched her conduct a Brahms symphony.

DE LEON DE VEGA: And she said, I am a gang member. And I have never gone to a symphony concert before. And I have never felt any emotion before, anything nice about anyone. She said, but this music touched my soul.

DEL BARCO: And that's what Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega hopes to do for every young Latino in Los Angeles. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.



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