The third and last finalist for the job of music director at the Eugene Symphony is in town and will conduct the orchestra in a regular season concert Thursday night.
Francesco Lecce-Chong, now assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, is 29 — which surprised me when I met him this week at the symphony’s office. Some of the most recent photos on his website make him look quite a bit older — and that is on purpose, he explained. “I got tired of people thinking I’m 14,” he joked.
A native of San Francisco, Lecce-Chong was raised in Boulder, Colorado, a city with much the same college-town vibe as Eugene. He’s an only child in a non-musical family; his father is an architect, and his mother, an artist.
As a child he worked his way through piano, violin and viola and was playing in a youth orchestra in Colorado when someone suggested he might try his hand at conducting. His first gig on the podium came at age 16 with a middle school orchestra.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” he said. “It all goes back to what I love about conducting — making music with people, ideally with the most people possible. I love opera! You can’t get more people than that. The more complex it is, the better.”
He got his undergraduate degree in piano and orchestral conducting from Mannes College of Music at The New School in New York. He also has a diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music.
Lecce-Chong thrives on making order out of chaos. He loves conducting from the podium as well as conducting from the keyboard, and if he gets the job here you can probably expect to see and hear historically appropriate performances of early classical music.
He sees Eugene as an incredible music opportunity. “What has made this orchestra such a lovely place for young conductors is that they entrust the music director with so much responsibility,” he says. “And you have this thing going for you that most orchestras don’t — you always have a young music director.”
If he gets the job, Lecce-Chong says, he hopes to have the orchestra perform new music by young composers from the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance and elsewhere.
That sounds simple enough, but Lecce-Chong warns that new music can mean a huge commitment from both the music director and from the orchestra. New music, by definition without a performance history, requires a lot of careful work to perform well.
“So much of what can make a composer’s work successful is how the musicians react to it,” he said. As a result, he is very demanding with composers of new work. That pickiness benefits both the orchestra and the composer.
“I can’t afford to have a single misstep,” he says.
Similarly, he would like to see a more honest relationship between the symphony and its audience — one in which, for example, the concert-goers might feel free to “boo” a work they don’t like.
“In the 19th and early 20th century,” he says, “audiences felt completely free to react however they wanted to. All those people who hated ‘Rite of Spring’ [which caused a near riot at its premiere] did so because they felt comfortable.”
Lecce-Chong leads the orchestra at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall in a program that includes Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist Soyeon Kate Lee; Mozart’s Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio; and Ricard Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier (1945 version).