Francesco Lecce-Chong

ArtsWatch Year in Music 2017

ArtsWatch chronicles a year that showcased women's music, natural inspirations, and institutional evolution

Oregon music is surging, and this year, Oregon ArtsWatch has been your personal surfboard to keep you on top of the tide instead of inundated by it. And to bring you views of the powerful creative forces beneath the waves. This roundup is in no way a comprehensive or even representative sample of the dozens and dozens of music-related previews, reviews, features, interviews, profiles, and more we presented in 2017. Instead, we’ve chosen mostly stories whose value transcends a particular concert, leaned toward Oregon rather than national artists (who can get plenty of press elsewhere), favored music by today’s American composers instead of long-dead Europeans, and tried to represent a variety of voices and approaches. We hope this roundup gives a valuable snapshot of an eventful, fruitful moment in Oregon’s musical culture.

Homegrown Sounds

Although we also write about jazz and other improvised music and other hard-to-classify sounds, ArtsWatch’s primary musical focus has always been contemporary “classical” (a term we’d love to replace with something more accurate) composition by Oregon composers, and this year presented a richer tapestry than ever. As always, Cascadia Composers led the way in presenting new Oregon music in the classical tradition, but others including FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, the University of Oregon and even new entities like Burn After Listening also shared homegrown sounds. ArtsWatch readers learned about those shows and composers from accomplished veterans like Kenji Bunch to emerging voices such as Justin Ralls.

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and ?? play with toys at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum
Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that ‘classical’ ? — Music. JANUARY 20 MATTHEW ANDREWS.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant
After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet. MARCH 7 BRETT CAMPBELL.

45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration
ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers. MARCH 29  BRETT CAMPBELL. Also read Maria Choban’s review: 45th Parallel review: Horror show .

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright.

‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure
New Portland composers’ collective’s debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences. APRIL 27 BRETT CAMPBELL

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Francesco Lecce-Chong: at home in Oregon

Eugene Symphony's new music director, who conducts the orchestra's season-opening concert this week, begins by engaging with his new community

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.”

Francesco Lecce-Chong conducted the ESO last spring at Eugene’s Hult Center.

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.

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Music Notes

Wrapping up recent news in Oregon music

Every so often, when the live music schedule slacks off a bit, we wrap up news in various provinces of Oregon’s vibrant music scene. Many of the items originally appeared on ArtsWatch’s Facebook page, which you should follow to keep up with the happenings in Oregon arts and ArtsWatch.

Laurels

The Portland State University Chamber Choir, which has been featured often in these news wraps and elsewhere on ArtsWatch, continues to bring the state international acclaim. Last month, it became the first American choir ever to compete in Asia’s largest choral festival, the Bali International Choral Festival, which featured over 100 choirs. And it won the Grand Prix. The Chamber Choir won two categories: Music of Religions and Gospels & Spirituals, earning the highest score in the entire festival for the latter.

According to PSU’s press release, during the ten day trip, the Chamber Choir toured cultural sites, visited a program to alleviate poverty and sang at a charity concert to raise money for homeless youth. The choir also joined two Indonesian choirs to sing opera chorus at a gala for Catharina Leimena, Indonesia’s first opera star. The group also apparently spontaneously rehearsed one of its pieces in the Shanghai Airport, drawing international attention.

This is the second international competition that the Chamber Choir has won in recent years. In 2013 they were the first American choir to win the Grand Prix at the Seghizzi International Competition for Choral Singing, held in Italy.

Ethan Sperry and PSU Chamber Choir won the big prize at the Bali International Choral Festival.

Last week, the choir released its new CD, The Doors of Heaven, which immediately landed  at #1 on Amazon Classical, #1 on iTunes Classical, and debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical chart — the first university choir to chart. It’s the first recording made by an American choir exclusively devoted to the music of one of the world’s hottest choral composers, Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds. We’ll be telling you more about it before the choir’s November CD release concerts in Portland.

Sperry was just named recipient of the first Portland Professorship, a new program that allows donors to name and fund termed PSU faculty positions.The first Portland Professorship position was recently created with a gift from longtime major PSU donor Robert Stoll of the Stoll Berne law firm.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Media Blitzen

A pair of premieres at Center Stage, dance and theater openings, Brett Campbell's weekly music picks, Christopher Rauschenberg & more

It’s a busy weekend at the Armory, where Portland Center Stage hangs its hat: world-premiere opening nights Friday for Wild and Reckless, the new concert/play from the band Blitzen Trapper, and Saturday for Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Both will be playing on the Main Stage, in repertory.

We haven’t (of course) seen either show yet, so we’ll quote the company on what’s up with Wild and Reckless: It “traces the unforgettable tale of two kids on the run, in a futuristic vision of Portland’s past. Evoking a bygone era of Portland, this sci-fi love story features a rock-and-roll score that pairs unreleased songs with favorites from the band’s catalog, including Black River Killer and Astronaut.” And what, precisely, is a futuristic vision of Portland’s past? Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy tossing a coin in spacesuits to name the city? Probably not. But tune in Friday, or anytime through April 30, to find out.

Eric Earley as The Narrator and Leif Norby as The Dealer in “Wild and Reckless.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Lauren Weedman we know a little better from her smart and edgy previous one-woman shows at Center Stage and elsewhere. She could run a clinic on how to grab and hold an audience’s attention: She can be funny, and she can be fierce, and she has the focus of a hawk hunting rabbits in an open field. This newest show, also through April 30, homes in on heartbreak and how to mend it, and arrives with big hair, tight jeans, and a passel of country tunes. Plus, a backup band.

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Eugene Symphony music director search: Clear choice

With the orchestra’s series of audition concerts now complete, one candidate stands head, shoulders, and baton above the rest

by TOM MANOFF

The Eugene Symphony has announced three candidates to succeed current conductor Danail Rachev: Dina Gilbert, Ryan McAdams and Francesco Lecce-Chong. As ArtsWatch’s feature about the selection process showed, all three young, rising conductors offered strong credentials in the race to join a distinguished lineage that includes stars Marin Alsop and Giancarlo Guerrero.

Francesco Lecce-Chong led the Eugene Symphony last week. Photo: Amanda Smith.

But the ultimate test was how successfully they directed the musicians each aspires to lead. Last week’s final audition concert leaves no doubt about the most qualified choice — the candidate who best meets Eugene’s needs today. Here are my observations from all three audition concerts.

Dina Gilbert

Active in Quebec, Gilbert has been the assistant conductor at the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and has also conducted a number of youth orchestras around the world. Compared with the other two candidates, her bio is particularly thin.

At her December 8 audition concert, Gilbert seemed quite nervous walking to the podium, which carried into the first piece: the overture to Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute.  Perhaps these nerves prompted her too-fast tempo for the overture’s opening, a pace the orchestra had a hard time keeping up with.

This Mozart overture is widely known, and, as it happens, has a tricky part for conductors, a section that many conducting students struggle to master. Mozart wrote a threefold utterance of an Eb -flat chord at the opening on the work (in homage to the Masons,) each of these chords with a short “pick-up.” Under Gilbert’s baton, the initial series of threefold statements was a bit shaky, but passable. However, when the threefold statement with pick-ups returned midway through the work, one was botched quite badly. The mistake revealed a flaw in Gilbert’s conducting technique, a problem that dogged her throughout the night.

Dina Gilbert conducted the Eugene Symphony in December. Photo: Amanda Smith.

Because I’m especially interested in conducting technique – there are so many styles that work – I was sitting in the balcony as far left as allowed. From that vantage point I could see most of what the conductor was doing. Gilbert has a hitch in her beat, coming down and then bouncing forward, a confusing motion, and certainly the problem with that missed Mozart chord.

Best performance on this night came next – Korngold’s schmaltzy Violin Concerto, played by a wonderful violinist , Elena Urioste. While Gilbert rarely imparted phrasing to the orchestra, the violinist did, and the result was satisfying.

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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.

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