Fifteen years ago, conductor Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega formed the Eagle Rock-based Santa Cecilia Orchestra to bring classical music to the Latino community of Los Angeles. After all, she had grown up in Echo Park and pursued her music education at Cal State Los Angeles.
In fact, her early career had gone swimmingly -- until, that is, a German conductor at a workshop told her that a woman would never be accepted on the podium. Never in our lifetime, he said. Conduct opera, he advised her. Get in the pit and do not come out for bows.
"I felt very sad," De Leon de Vega, 42, said the other day. "He said that in front of everyone. I walked out and someone followed me. He said, 'I'd like to speak to you. Let's have some coffee.' "
The man turned out to be conductor Pierre Boulez, who told her, "Do not believe that. Just keep working. I know I will hear great things about you in the future."
Today, that future includes an annual Santa Cecilia season that in 2007-08 will consist of three orchestra concerts and three chamber music programs. The chamber music series, featuring musicians from the local collective Inauthentica, begins tonight. The orchestra series will start Nov. 18.
Daughter of actress-producer Sonia De Leon and singer-guitarist Reynaldo Sanchez, De Leon de Vega was born in San Antonio and moved to Los Angeles with her family when she was 4.
A year later, she began studying piano and a year after that discovered classical music while fiddling with the radio dial.
"I heard a Beethoven symphony," she said. "Right away I wanted to play some Beethoven. But there was no Beethoven in Piano Book 1. But eventually I did. And that was when my love of classical music started."
At Cal State L.A., she studied piano and organ and turned to conducting only toward the end of her undergraduate studies.
"I was afraid of it," she said. "But when I took it, I had a wonderful teacher, David Buck. I felt very comfortable. He felt I was a natural."
After graduate work with Buck, she trained at the Herbert Blomstedt International Institute for Instrumental Conductors in Loma Linda, Calif., and at various American Symphony Orchestra League workshops led by figures such as Maurice Abravanel, Zubin Mehta, Boulez and Andre Previn.
It was at one of those that the German conductor, whom she prefers not to name, made his ill-advised remark.
"Part of me believed that," she said. "I did start conducting opera. But I've never been tempted to give up. I have a fire in me. I'm tireless."
At least conducting local opera companies -- none of which, unfortunately, managed to survive -- gave her professional experience. Onyx Opera, for instance, had three casts for Puccini's "La Boheme."
"Each cast had a three-hour rehearsal onstage on a Saturday," she said. "I would conduct 'La Boheme' for nine hours. I had to keep conducting it over and over with different voices. It was great for me."
Still, as her career developed and she conducted in Italy and Mexico, she noticed how concert halls in those countries would be filled with families, whereas "so many times back home, you can't fill a hall even with a free concert."
"That made a huge impression on me. One reason I founded this orchestra was to take music into the communities where people could feel very comfortable going to concerts."
She named the orchestra after her father's favorite saint -- Cecilia, the patron saint of music -- taking the Italian form of the name because her father had visited the saint's tomb in Rome a few weeks before his death from cancer in 1990.
The first concert was at St. Ignatius Church in Highland Park.
"There were 28 musicians onstage, the altar area," De Leon de Vega said. "We had about 12 people in the audience. It wasn't a great start. That's just the way it is. It takes lots and lots of work. I found out you can't just put on a concert and expect people to go there."
The funding, she said, came from "my savings account, which I no longer have. I was paying for everything. I couldn't afford to become a nonprofit because to become a tax-exempt costs a few thousand dollars to do the legal work. I finally did that on my own in 1998."
Along the way, however, she had slowly built up an audience with concerts in Highland Park, Eagle Rock and Beverly Hills and at Grand Performances downtown. For 10 years, until the competition was discontinued, she featured winners of the Artists of the Future Competition sponsored by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs.
Now a mid-sized organization with a budget hovering above $250,000, Santa Cecilia gets funding from several foundations, the California Arts Council, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the Cultural Affairs Department. It's also received five National Endowment for the Arts grants.