"Religious Views: Christian." An unusually bold declaration on Facebook from a musician playing Carnegie Hall in New York City, one of classical music's sacred spots.
It's the end of June, and Leonardo Le San-a 32-year-old pianist and composer who immigrated from Colombia 18 years ago-is preparing for his Carnegie debut. As a teenager he had thought about playing Carnegie, but "I never thought I'd have the chance."
His path to Carnegie was winding, geographically and spiritually. No one owned a piano in the tiny, mountainous town in Colombia where he spent his first 14 years. He had training as a tenor and a guitar player, but not until he came to the United States did he learn English and study piano, eventually becoming a music major at the University of Delaware.
What Le San had, he says, was "a terrible temper. Very aggressive. Driven. Insensitive to people. Running over whoever got in my way." His family was Roman Catholic but Le San went his own way. Determination helped to make him a rising star: "I was the first person at the music school in the morning and the last to leave." Determination also made him "difficult to love."
At the University of Delaware "I was getting to know college girls. They were far from their parents and had no restraint." Then he met one who "was different, a Christian. I was impressed with her character and her ethics. She encouraged me to come to church." He went and kept going for three months.
Then Le San met Will Metzger, who has now been an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship college minister at the University of Delaware for 45 (count 'em) years. Metzger counseled and challenged him: Do not toy with God so as to win favor from a young woman. Le San went to a park for several hours, went over the Bible passages Metzger emphasized, prayed, repented.
He changed. He joined Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Wilmington and is now a member of a PCA church in Philadelphia. He is now married (although not to the young woman who originally brought him to church) and has a 1-year-old. Some musicians are haughty, but Le San has sacrificed for his family, until recently working as a courier to put bread on the table, and working for his brother's moving company when he was short of workers. Some composers ignore those who helped them, but Le San calls and writes Metzger regularly.
Some "high culture" artists look down at popular music, but Le San brings it into his compositions. Some proud musicians resent performing except in polished halls, but Le San performs two or three times each month in many kinds of venues, both for financial and ministry reasons: "I love to play for kids at schools. I love to play in retirement communities: They hug me and give me inspiration."
Nevertheless, Carnegie Hall is special: Just days before the concert, he told me, "I need to be in the best shape of my life." And then, on the last Saturday in June, dressed in the pianist's classic tailcoat, Le San strode onto a stage with a Steinway grand under a vaulted ceiling. He fluently opened with Beethoven and closed with Liszt. In between he played Chopin and Rachmaninoff, noting their emigrations: Chopin left Poland (Russian oppression was severe) and Rachmaninoff left Russia in 1917 when Communists seized power.
Le San also played two of his own compositions. His Noctazia emphasizes the vibrating particles in a universe created like a musical composition-and the vibrations could be felt in the fifth row. His world premiere piece, The Voices of My Town, incorporated music from Colombian culture, tango tunes, and elements of jazz and blues (see the Bill Edgar interview on p. 28). The audience loved it. "I was happy," Le San said later: "The audience was great."
The musician who was once driven and insensitive now wants to share his gift with all kinds of people. He has a humble confidence that perhaps comes with the favorite quotation he lists on his Facebook page in reference to God: "If I am for you who can be against you?"
Email Marvin Olasky