Dr. César Leal Brings South America to the University of the South

Pictured: Dr. César Leal. Photo by Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21).

By Jeremy O’Neill
Staff Writer

When the conductor, Dr. César Leal, stops the orchestra during a rehearsal to make adjustments, one of his eccentric habits is to also ask the musicians for unique words in foreign languages during this pause. This brief linguistic exploration both lightens the mood of the often serious Sewanee Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, and showcases Leal’s passion for international understanding.

Leal is an assistant professor of music with a primary focus on musicology, or the study of the history, culture, and impact of music. His teaching comes in addition to his role as Artistic Director and Conductor of the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra. Leal’s passion to foster cross-cultural understanding extends far beyond his light-hearted trivia questions to the orchestra members

As a Colombian native who found himself in the United States on a scholarship to study instrumental conducting at Florida International University, Leal strives to connect people and music across ethnic, political, and socioeconomic lines. This is shown in one of his favorite classes to teach: Music 224, “Musics of Latin America.” The course offers Sewanee students a unique insight into the traditions of other cultures, all through the lens of music.

“Musics of Latin America brings to the classroom a whole different idea of what music is and the social-cultural role of music in different communities that are actually closer to us than we might realize,” Leal said. “It also gives us a glimpse into the importance of immigration in this country, and the extent of the cultural impact other countries have had here, for which we have to be thankful.”

The geographic exploration led by Leal in the classroom carries over into his research. In the past, he has written works on cultural appropriation in music, as American and European composers often take musical ideas from other ethnic groups.

The Sewanee Symphony Orchestra serves a microcosm of Leal’s passion for connecting individuals of different backgrounds; it is open to the entire Sewanee community, from middle school students at St. Andrew’s School to retired community members. This creates a unique sense of togetherness, as people whose paths might not necessarily cross find themselves working together to make music.

“If you come to one of the orchestra concerts, you learn a lot about what this community is about,” Leal said. “I love the orchestra. I look forward to every rehearsal.”

When asked about what he hopes students take from the classes he teaches, Leal chuckled from behind his bright blue rimmed spectacles: “How much time do you have?” he asked, before offering some insight into the universal and practical value he tries to infuse in the study of music at Sewanee.

A true testament to the liberal arts education, Leal and the other music faculty are happy to welcome students from different majors or areas of study into their classes, as the diversity of academic backgrounds makes class discussions more interesting.

It becomes clear within a few minutes of conversing with Leal that his passions for teaching music and culture permeate into his daily life. Parisian music posters adorn his office walls, and books outlining musical composers both famous and unknown lie on desk. Finally, when asked what he wanted Sewanee students to know about him, he responded: “I am always happy to help with Spanish assignments, and I’d love to see you at the next orchestra concert!”

After having shared the stage with the Chattanooga Symphony on February 9, Leal’s next appearance conducting the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra will take place Thursday, April 4.