Not every orchestra music director lives in the city where they conduct. Most have multiple gigs and spend much of their time on airplanes and in hotel rooms. But newly appointed Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong decided to move to Eugene — during July’s 107 degree heat wave, no less.
“You travel so much as a conductor anyway that you can pick your spot,” he explains. “It’s such a beautiful place, and when you’re starting a new job in a new place, you want to invest in it.”
Besides, it already feels like home. After a decade at East Coast conservatories (Mannes College of Music and Curtis Institute) and orchestras (assistant conductor at Milwaukee and Pittsburg Symphonies), Eugene reminds him of another outdoor-friendly college where he was born and raised — Boulder, Colorado — where he started conducting youth orchestra at age 16. Even then, Lecce-Chong admired how Eugene Symphony music director Marin Alsop took her other orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, from community ensemble to professional orchestra.
As a student, he encountered both of Alsop’s successors, Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Giancarlo Guerrero, who like Alsop went on to conduct prestigious orchestras. Both told him how how valuable the ESO position had been for their development. “They said that back before it was cool, Eugene was only orchestra in US that was was taking risks and picking young, first-time music directors and giving them space and support to grow,” Lecce-Chong remembered. That put the ESO on his radar, and when Danail Rachev’s contract expired last year and the job opened up, he went for it, beating out more than 250 other applicants. Read Tom Manoff’s ArtsWatch story about his audition concert. (He’ll keep his current assignments as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, with whom he’s currently on a big European tour, and principal conductor of its youth orchestra, for the rest of this season.)
Lecce-Chong arrived to find the Eugene Symphony’s current season already set (orchestras plan way ahead), so this season doesn’t really represent his own vision. However, he was able to make a few tweaks that reflect his own priorities and give insights into what lies ahead.
The February 15 program, which has a nature theme springing from Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons violin concertos, originally boasted a couple of hoary classics. Lecce-Chong, who told EW during the audition process that “as a composer myself, I am passionate about supporting local and national composers,” thought the program needed something contemporary — and he had just the piece in mind. Tumblebird Contrails, writes his friend and fellow former Curtis student Gabriella Smith (a rising star whose work impressed Portland audiences (and ArtsWatch’s Matthew Andrews) at this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest) was inspired by the 26-year-old, Bay Area-based composer’s hikes at the California coast’s Point Reyes. She also hiked stretches of the Pacific Crest trail.
“We have a composer who’s hiked around the area, written a piece that describes what’s around here so beautifully, and it fits in the program thematically,” he says. Adding it was “such a simple change that really enlivened the program.”
Engaging the Community
It’s a sign of things to come. “I want to [program] Oregon composers and bring in all my young composer colleagues,” Lecce-Chong says. “The hardest part is finding ways to introduce them in the best possible light,” not just programming the usual brief “tossaways” that allow orchestras to claim they’re doing today’s music while still filling the vast majority of actual performance minutes to old music by long dead Europeans. “You’ve given the audience permission to not take it seriously,” he said. Instead, “when people come to concerts we should be enriching, inspiring, creating dialogue.” That means devoting attention to how the music is presented and “approaching new music and American composers in a way that connects to audiences,” he explains. “Marin was able to connect. [Audiences] would go to programs and not know what they were going to hear because they’d come to trust her creative process when she creates programs. It’s amazing.”
Those who remember Alsop’s storied tenure will recall how she built a level of trust with Eugene audiences. “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,” Lecce-Chong says.
Building that trust happens not just on stage but also in the orchestra’s community and education programs, like ESO’s current Symphony Connect, which brings classical music to people unlikely to venture to the Hult Center, including students, low income Oregonians, people with mental health issues etc. Like many assistant conductors, Lecce-Chong, who was inspired by the broad audiences and high enthusiasm he experienced in leading this summer’s free Cuthbert Amphitheater concert, has advocated for such programs in his previous orchestras. The difference now that he’s actually in charge:
“Artistic integrity and being in your community are the same thing,” he says. You can’t have one without the other. They get separated. You have people fighting to bring A-list soloists and building the best orchestra, and they’re different than the people fighting for education concerts and getting outside the concert hall and reaching families. And [in some orchestras], these two sides fight. We need to get past that. The fact that I can be there and communicate that I want those side by side, now I can make those things happen. But first, it’s important to get to know the community before I start.”
Francesco Lecce-Chong conducts the Eugene Symphony with singer Renee Fleming Tuesday, September 19, at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets online. A version of this story appeared in Eugene Weekly.
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