Eugene Symphony music director search: Next star?

Orchestra's successful track record of finding exciting young conductors has made it a national model

On Thursday, the Eugene Symphony auditions its final candidate for music director — in front of an audience of thousands at its Hult Center performance. Francesco Lecce-Chong will be the third finalist, chosen from dozens of worthy applicants, to lead the orchestra this season.

Francesco Lecce-Chong, rehearsing with Eugene Symphony musicians, leads the orchestra Thursday. Photo: Amanda L. Smith.

Choosing a new Eugene Symphony music director is big news in Oregon, of course, but it’s also national news. That’s because the orchestra in a middling sized town far from cultural centers has launched the careers of three important American conductors:

• Marin Alsop, the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, in Baltimore, who regularly conducts the world’s greatest orchestras.

• Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who now leads the Fort Worth Symphony and his own Latin American classical music ensemble and guest conducts major orchestras around the world.

• Giancarlo Guerrero, who’s winning an international reputation for showcasing new music with his Nashville Symphony, recently helping the orchestra collect a trove of Grammies for some of the new abundant new American music the symphony has performed and recorded during his tenure. (It’s too early to tell where Guerrero’s successor, Danail Rachev, whose eight-year term ends this spring, will go next.)

Former ESO music director Giancarlo Guerrero has energized the Nashville Symphony with new American music. Photo: Amanda L. Smith.

And the intensive, exhaustive process used to choose them all, largely created by local lawyer and arts supporter Roger Saydack, has become a national model — “he literally wrote the book” on picking a music director, says ESO executive director Scott Freck, noting that Saydack wrote the League of American Orchestras’ manual on orchestra MD searches. So who becomes the next ESO artistic leader matters — not just here, but nationally.

“There’s no more exciting time in the life of an orchestra than when we go through this process,” Freck says. “Every time we start from scratch. It’s a time of introspection and renewal.” Every seven or so years (which is about as long most rising stars would want to stay with a mid-sized orchestra), the search for its next director forces ESO to consider what kind of orchestra it wants to be, what music it wants to play, what role it wants to play in its community. Here’s how Eugene Symphony makes the magic happen — and what to expect from the three finalists if one of them is chosen when the process concludes this spring.

Some orchestras choose leaders in back rooms containing maybe a few big donors and its board. Freck, who took over in 2012 and will be be participating in it for the first time, is proud that Eugene’s is “an open process.” After some initial planning, last March, he emailed 300 people — artist managers, other orchestras, music conservatories, etc. To let them know that the Eugene job was opening, and in return received 257 applications from 44 countries and 33 US states.

Eugene Symphony executive director Scott Freck.

A 12-member committee made up of board members, orchestra musicians and various community members then began culling, checking references, videos (much easier in the YouTube era than the videocassette days), and other research. They trimmed the list to 70, then 30. The top nine visited Eugene last summer to talk to committee members, put together a hypothetical first season, share their ideas about the concert experience. They also, for the first time, actually worked with ESO musicians on the search committee by reading through movements of Igor Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale. Even though it was an impromptu chamber music experience rather than a full orchestral rehearsal, the exercise still gave the musicians a sense of how each candidate works with musicians she or he might be leading.

Inspiring the Community

What were they looking for? “We had a pretty a long list, some of it musical and technical, some relational, some organizational,” says Freck. “First you need a conductor who’s going to inspire the orchestra to play really well. If you don’t have a great core product, the rest doesn’t matter.”

But that’s only the starting point. Orchestras today can no longer take for granted that just playing the classics well will — or even should — guarantee success. That means the symphony music director, in a town with few big arts institutions and big donors, has to play a larger role in the larger community.

Music director laureate Marin Alsop returned to lead her old band last year. Photo: Amanda L. Smith.

“Eugene is the kind of place that values commitment,” Saydack explains. “Being committed to this orchestra means being committed to our musicians. We can’t offer full time employment to the musicians we have to work with, so that it’s important they be treated with enormous respect and gratitude for doing the work they do, and to make an effort to engage with them  to make music together. It’s not like ‘maestro comes to town and does things his or her way.’ It’s much more collaborative.”

The candidates also have to understand the orchestra’s audience, he says. “We’re a college town, so our tastes are somewhat venturesome but also at times surprisingly conservative. A music director has to understand that part of the responsibility is to generate support, which translates into ticket sales, contributions and support,” Saydack explains. “The biggest communities in America have trouble carrying the cost of operas and orchestras. In Eugene, the base is small but significant, so this person has to relate to that small community. To do that, they have to spend enough time here to know the place and people.”

Final Audition

They settled on three finalists. “All three are wonderful musicians and fulfill the first and most fundamental criterion.” Saydack says. “Once we’re satisfied a candidate has the technical skills, it becomes a question of who’s going to be the right fit, who has the best chemistry with this orchestra, this audience, and this community?”

Miguel Harth-Bedoya returned to lead ESO in fall 2015. Photo: Amanda L. Smith.

And that’s something that can only be determined first hand with the candidates in Eugene, working with musicians and the community, not by a resume. “That’s the beauty of this process,” Freck says. “We crafted it so we can recognize it when we’ve seen it.” So each returns this season to lead a regular subscription concert and spend what Freck calls “a very taxing week, in a good way,” meeting with the symphony’s board and volunteers, community members, potential artistic partners and local arts leaders, participating in outreach programs at schools and the University of Oregon and beyond, and rehearsing and leading the orchestra in a full concert.

Roger Saydack and his wife Elaine Bernat chat with Dina Gilbert at a Eugene reception. Photo: Amanda L. Smith.

Saydack says each brings substantial assets.

Dina Gilbert [who led the orchestra’s December concert] comes from a great culture and tradition of music making. She’s deeply committed to contemporary music and formed her own group to present it. If she came, we’d see a style of music making we haven’t in the past: exploration of classic repertoire we haven’t dug into deeply, and exploration of the newest repertoire being written now. She has a wonderful ability to express herself — a persuasive and convincing advocate.

Ryan McAdams has received outstanding recognition for his great power as a conductor with the classics but also with contemporary music. He’s a highly proficient conductor who sees the concert venue as a way to explore the arts in general and is in great demand for innovative concert performances. If he came, we’d see that idea of the symphony concert expand in ways we haven’t seen in the past.

“Francesco has been assistant conductor at two great orchestras, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. He brings incredible joy to his conducting — he looks like [former ESO music director] Miguel [Harth-Bedoya] when he conducts — very fluid. Of all the people I’ve seen come through these searches, he’s probably been the most passionate about outreach. If he comes, he’ll make concerts a joyous activity.

Eugene Symphony music director Danail Rachev’s tenure concludes this spring.

The orchestra’s Music Director Search Committee will convene after Lecce-Chong’s concert on March 16 to consider udience input from each of the three finalists’ concerts, along with feedback from the orchestra and Eugene Symphony Association Board of Directors, staff, and partnering organizations. The Association expects to name the new Music Director in May 2017.

And if they don’t? The orchestra’s excellent track record means it can afford to be picky, knowing that some of the most promising emerging conductors will be interested in leading this relatively isolated orchestra far from major cultural centers.

“We’re talking about three exciting, wonderful options,” Saydack says. “These folks represent three paths to the future: which do you go down? These three finalists all have that spark that could catch fire, that could inspire the musicians, the board, the volunteers, the audience. We’ll know it when we see it. If not, we’ll keep looking.”

Intended Consequences

Here are excerpts from the candidates’ responses to questions about their philosophy and plans for the orchestra should they be selected, with emphasis on the role of new music, Oregon music, diversifying audiences, and community involvement.

Dina Gilbert

My main philosophy as a Music Director is to develop a relationship of trust between the orchestra and the audience… by insisting that every piece in every concert deserves the full attention of the concertgoers, and also by communicating and engaging with the audience before some lesser-known pieces.

I am choosing music for their qualities as well as their impact on the audience, regardless of if this piece is a classical masterpiece or a contemporary piece. I also feel that every piece in a concert needs to be an organic complement to the other pieces of the program. In years past, I’ve programmed a lot of Canadian and contemporary music. I would be delighted to continue this trend in the US by commissioning pieces from American composers. Some of my most beloved contemporary American composers are Mason Bates, Jonathan Newman, Jennifer Higdon, Sean Shepherd and Melinda Wagner.

As an orchestra, we must nourish and inspire the upcoming generation of musicians and composers. Our modern society is evolving so quickly that I think we must be open to approach musical commission in a broader perspective. For instance, I would like the Eugene Symphony to commission pieces where composers would work in collaboration with visual artists of all kinds from the beginning of the work until its creation. I also really like the idea of creating pieces where the members of the audience are taking action in the piece in an interactive way…

Dina Gilbert conducted the orchestra in December. Photo: Amanda L. Smith.


Outside of the standard concert form, I am also open to new kinds of collaborations involving pop music, films and video games. For instance, I had the opportunity to conduct a Hip Hop Symphonic concert with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France and some of the greatest French hip hop artists, a concert which received great acclaim and reached a completely new audience.

With Ensemble Arkea, a Montreal based chamber orchestra that I founded six years ago, I have presented a successful outreach initiative entitled “Conducting 101 – Workshop” for an audience from age 4 to 90. With this fun activity, people with no musical knowledge can quickly understand many musical concepts such as tempo, dynamics and phrasing. Most importantly, they understand the non-verbal communication between the conductor and the musicians since I am asking a few apprentices from the audience to conduct the musicians on stage. I would be delighted to present a short concert followed by this interactive “Conducting 101 – Workshop ” in places where classical music is less accessible such as hospitals, prisons, schools where there are no music programs.

As a Music Director of the Eugene Symphony, I would like to pursue these innovative concert programs with a special focus to attract 18-35-year-olds who are mostly students at the University of Oregon or young professionals. I would be thrilled to work with the administration, the community and the musicians to elaborate broad audience concert projects such as the Symfest where the concert becomes a festive experience.

A native of Québec, Dina Gilbert is the assistant conductor at the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and founder and artistic director of Ensemble Arkea, a Montreal-based professional chamber orchestra that presents innovative interpretations of orchestral music. She is also dedicated to conducting new commissions and works by Canadian composers.

Ryan McAdams 

I became a conductor first and foremost to deepen the relationship between an orchestra and its community. We have to make sure that what we put on the stage reflects the diversity of the world we are inviting into the concert hall. We have the privilege of passing the microphone to contemporary geniuses from historically marginalized groups – people of color, women, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community, for example.

If we can help people to feel that they are seen and heard outside of the concert hall then they will feel more excited about having a collective experience inside it. The collective experience of music-making must be available to everyone, and orchestras can now go outside the concert hall to offer it directly. There are so many exceptional works that demand musicians of the calibre of Eugene Symphony that are too big or too intimate for the Hult, and many great spaces in everyone’s neighborhood that could house performances: museums, restaurants, schools, silos, factories, dance studios, not to mention outside spaces! There are some marvelous large-scale outdoor works that fill an entire park and take a village to perform – and which can involve people at any level of musical experience, including none at all. It’s vital to explore how we can give the whole community a chance to experience what it means to make music together.

Ryan McAdams conducted the ESO in January. Photo: Amanda L. Smith.

I would hope to directly collaborate with some aspect of Eugene culture at every concert. It would be so exciting to find meaningful ways to pair with theater organizations, dance and music ensembles from every genre, storytellers, artist collectives, chefs and sommeliers and brewers. I can imagine performances with projections and installations from the [University of Oregon] art and dance departments; programs exploring literature and poetry in music with the language departments; explorations of science and technology in music; pre-concert explorations about cultural contexts with the history department, half-time shows at games…

Introducing audiences, musicians and great contemporary composers to one another is one of my great pleasures. Building programs to nourish these relationships and programming regular performances of Oregon composers would be core values of my commitment to Eugene. This could include orchestra-reading sessions and performances for new music in multiple venues, artists-in-residence who work specifically with local composers, and masterclasses to introduce works-in-progress to the public.

Commissioning and presenting new work is a basic responsibility of any arts organization and if that work isn’t familiar, then we have a responsibility to build an experience around it that opens doors for the listener. I want familiar and less familiar masterpieces to live urgently on the same concert so that the audience will hear and feel the pieces wrestling with the same ideas, even when they’re separated by centuries. There must be some narrative to an evening so that it reveals over the course of the concert that it’s about much more than what anyone initially imagined. That’s how concerts become these irreplaceable and unrepeatable events.

My responsibility is to then spend time in the community discussing why we love the works we’ve programmed and the themes and ideas that connect them. My hope is that this will allow people to trust me to be their tour guide through our current golden age of composition. New pieces that I’m desperate to program include Andrew Norman’s PLAY and Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you and Meredith Monk’s Weave and Lou Harrison’s Orpheus and David Fulmer’s Saxophone Concerto and Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba and Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves and David Lang’s the little match girl passion and Sofia Gubadulina’s Offertorium and Julius Eastman’s Femenine and Michael Jarrell’s Cassandre and John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean and John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 and Avner Dorman’s Piccolo Concerto and Nico Muhly’s new Viola Concerto and and and and… all works I love so deeply that it takes a serious effort to restrain myself from having a spontaneous listening party when I meet someone who hasn’t heard them.

Brooklyn resident Ryan McAdams, who’s received acclaim for leading orchestras around the world, is the first-ever recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award.

Francesco Lecce-Chong

When I am considering pieces for a program, I keep three specific questions in mind: how does the piece fit in with the audience, community, and orchestra? What does the piece mean to me as an artist? And how does it relate with other pieces on the program?

I think the most successful music directors are ones who develop a level of trust with their audience – a trust that the music on the program will be meaningful and memorable, even if they are unfamiliar with it. Overall, I try to… have a healthy mix of programs that are serious, light, virtuosic, or festive.

Lecce-Chong leads ESO March 16. Photo: Tim Evans.

I think the presentation of a program goes a long way towards creating a special concert experience. I have found success writing my own program notes from a personal perspective that ties together the entire program rather than abstract historical facts on each piece. I also enjoy giving interactive preconcert talks and usually find a way to briefly speak from the podium to remove the invisible barrier between stage and audience that can make newcomers feel uncomfortable and disconnected from the music. Lately, I have been speaking with young audience members about integrating technology and using social media to provide insight into orchestral music and how an orchestra works together.

One of the most painful realizations for me has been the lack of diversity in our audiences – racially and economically. As music director, I would seek to foster more diverse programming and bring in guest artists from varied backgrounds to participate in outreach projects throughout Eugene. I have never met anyone who, after learning I was a conductor, did not want to know more about orchestra music and attend a concert. This is why I believe there is no substitute for personal interaction, and how an entire organization and its supporting community can ensure all have an opportunity to experience the incredible artistry of an orchestra like the Eugene Symphony.

As a composer myself, I am passionate about supporting local and national composers. One of my great joys since becoming a conductor has been supporting my composer colleagues and introducing local composers to audiences. I have been fortunate to have had some amazing opportunities to do so like starting the annual Composers Institute at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. I would love to do similar projects with the Eugene Symphony to connect Oregon composers with the community and raise awareness of their music at the national level. I will continue to prioritize local composers as part of my goal of creating concerts that are relevant to the community.

One of the most rewarding jobs as music director is curating roughly three hundred years of music from around the world and placing it into cohesive programs of the highest artistic quality. So I work to make use of the full breadth and diversity of our repertoire, while emphasizing music that I think is most relevant to the orchestra and community. I am primarily concerned with orchestral standards and current American music that will grow the identity and artistry of the orchestra. I am a big fan of three of the most performed American composers currently: John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, and Mason Bates. As the “Beethovens” of our day, I think their music should be a component in every season. I am also keeping up with the work of several young composers whose music is evocative and communicative in a way that can surprise and delight an audience without needing any special explanation. Three of them I would like to introduce to Eugene would be Michael Djupstrom, Gabriella Smith, and Matthew Browne.

More than ever before, our world needs orchestras that are active in the community and dedicated to enhancing the culture of a city through not only the highest quality performances, but with education, outreach, and partnership. What makes Eugene special to me is its fiercely independent local culture, the beautiful outdoors, and an orchestra that has received national recognition for its support of American music and young music directors.

Francesco Lecce-Chong, a native of Boulder, Colorado, has worked with orchestras around the world and is Assistant Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Francesco Lecce-Chong leads the Eugene Symphony in music by Bartok, Strauss, Mozart and Liszt this Thursday, March 16, at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets online. A shorter version of this story appeared in Eugene Weekly.

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One Response.

  1. It’s definitely a national model, for choosing a certain type of conductor.

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