When he was studying conducting at the Curtis Institute, experienced conductors came through to teach master classes, conduct the school’s orchestra, and talk about the path to glory … or at least to Tier 1 orchestras in the U.S. One such conductor was former Eugene Symphony, now Nashville Symphony, music director Giancarlo Guerrero. Just after him, the next visiting conductor was former Eugene Symphony, now Fort Worth Symphony, music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
Lecce-Chong says, “When you’re a young conductor, your question is, ‘What do I need to do to succeed?'” Both of the former Eugene Symphony music directors told Lecce-Chong that Eugene deliberately liked to seek out first-time music directors. “This was ten years ago,” Lecce-Chong says. “So this feels almost surreal.”
Lecce-Chong currently works as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. Before that, he was associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He’s a pianist and composer as well as conductor.
We had a short discussion during a busy day for Lecce-Chong, the third and final candidate for the position that comes vacant after current music director Danail Rachev finishes in May.
Suzi Steffen, The Eugene Review: So, what had you heard about the Eugene Symphony before you applied?
Francesco Lecce-Chong: The Eugene Symphony, among the musician community, has a national reputation. Both Giancarlo Guerrero and Miguel Harth-Bedoya said “Eugene is what made it for me; they trusted me; they gave me a chance.” Really, no other orchestra this size can lay claim to wanting first-time music directors.
So when you hear this, Eugene sits in the back of your head. And to be here as a candidate … I mean, I had in my head that I wanted to be with an orchestra like the Eugene Symphony, but to be here! It’s remarkable. This is the first cycle I even decided to start applying. I worked for four years at Milwaukee, and then I wanted to move to one of the big ten orchestras, so when Pittsburgh came up, I thought it would be very good for me. And it’s been great to move up another notch and experience what that is all about. Now it’s great to be part of this process in Eugene; it’s a very special honor.
I’ve seen orchestras struggle and the arts struggle. But coming here, feeling the interest and the community support – everyone is so excited about this search and the orchestra. They care so much. This is a place where I would be given the responsibility and the challenge to improve on what is already so great about this amazing arts community. If every symphony had this level of interest in its music director search and the symphony, all of our problems would be solved. That’s been the most exciting thing to learn about Eugene: It’s not just about this national group that has helped young composers and young music directors, but actually, within the community, that’s what drives it. That’s why they can do things like hire young composers and young music directors.
You had already met with some of the Eugene Symphony musicians in July 2016, and at this point (on Monday), you’ve had two rehearsals. What is your impression of the orchestra after that?
I’ve had a wonderful time. I’m all about an orchestra that is very adaptable and very flexible, ready to have fun, adapt and change. That’s always been my greatest joy. It’s why I have no problem with my wonderful Youth Orchestra. They may have their issues, but these are young people who are eager to try out new things and understand how to be better. Here, it’s been really exciting. We have a difficult program for the orchestra; a couple of the pieces have never been done before here, and all four are unfamiliar to the orchestra. It’s kind of a gift to a conductor; I’m not dealing with tradition. I’m allowed to bring out the character in this music. The orchestra has been really a joy to work with. They’re excited, quick to dive into new ideas, and that is all you could ever hope for – that kind of relationship where you can feel like, as a group, you’re finding ways to make the music even more effective and to communicate with the audience.
Yes, please do talk a little about your programming choices for this concert [Note: All three music directors were given two pieces of music, one with a soloist and one Mozart overture, and then asked to program around that.]
I was given the Mozart and Bartok, and I thought, this is ironic, because when I came to interview in July, I was talking about programming that was cohesive. I thought, “How am I supposed to show what my programming is like?” But the moment I decided they’d be separated by intermission, it all came together in my head, and now we have a program full of character and color, one half Hungarian, one half Viennese.
We expected people to come where we are, but it’s more exciting now that we need an entire community to embrace us, even if they don’t come to every concert.
I wanted the whole program to be about culture, about composers who had strong cultural backgrounds in one place but combined it with their current culture in another place.
So Liszt, who was Hungarian, was more Germanic by the time he wrote the Mephisto Waltz (of course, anything based on Faust is Germanic). He took that current fad, took his Hungarian background and fused the two. The Bartok [Piano Concerto No. 3] is more crazy in many ways. He was living in the U.S. by the time of this piano concerto; the whole section with birdsongs comes from what he copied down in Asheville. But then he puts in an ode in to traditional Western music, quoting a string quartet by Beethoven. It’s his current home and his roots, which made sense; he was at the end of his life.
The second half is all about golden age Vienna. In many ways [the overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio] is a bad example of the Mozart we know. In this one, he’s trying to make fun of all of the wars between Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. He goes all-out, adding a battery of percussion and a piccolo player, and it’s a really fun piece, I was telling the orchestra to go for it at both ends, make it very light and Viennese when it’s that style, very light and beautiful, and then you have these brutal moments and it turns into a Turkish march. Keep these two styles, and it’s a great example of a culture clash in a piece of music.
Then lastly, and I’ve worked on it many many times, the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. It’s an interesting piece for me because Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal created an idealized Viennese society; even the title is a fictional tradition, where this rose-bearer goes on behalf of a groom to give a rose to the girl that is going to be married. It’s a fictional tradition, but the reason they did it was to comment on Viennese society. They were saying, Vienna over the years, even at the apex of our golden age, we have these traditions that are in some ways very beautiful – and we have our royalty – but there are also downsides. [They were also saying] let’s make fun of how pompous people are, how they care about traditions over everything else. It’s a hilarious story that’s also bittersweet if not heartbreaking. The whole story line takes place as kind of a farewell to golden age Vienna. Given what was happening in the arts – Schoenberg and Stravinsky and even Strauss himself – and in politics, it’s a big farewell. Der Rosenkavalier combines light comic opera and Johann Strauss Jr-style glorious waltzes with the sound of Wagner and his rich orchestrations, and it sums it up in one opera. It’s one of those few pieces that has never not been popular. It had over a hundred performances in its first year, in 1911.
I’m looking forward to it all! Let’s talk a bit about the business aspect of running an orchestra as the music director, your responsibilities for fundraising, etc.
I think the most important thing is that when I meet with a potential donor, I’m not meeting with them to ask for a certain amount of money. I want to be able to tell them what we’re doing in a way that makes them want to give. This requires being more interesting and more innovative than just saying come to a subscription concert. If we can say, look, we played concerts for 10,000 school kids this year; we collaborated with these arts orgs; we did a year residency with this composer … well, the Eugene Symphony is already doing that, actually.
I want to be able to meet with the community, want to be able to talk about all of the amazing things we’re doing that impact the community. Throughout the year, what are we doing that is supporting the community? The biggest issue right now, well, let’s say that I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. Orchestras are making a transition, and it’s going to take a while, but we need to start viewing ourselves as service organizations. There’s still a lot of talk of audiences getting older, how do we find new subscribers? And that leads to somehow, all of our outreach, education, etc. falls into “That will help us get more subscribers!” instead of “We want to serve as many people in the community as possible.”
But no. Look at the Eugene Symphony’s free concert in the park in the summer. Hey, we just reached 5,000 people, because they heard the music, not because 5,000 people will become subscribers. That is who we are. We should be trying to reach every single resident in the city. If they walk into a cafe where a string quartet is playing from the Eugene Symphony, if there is a small chamber group, if there is a school visit, whatever it is, that combines with what we do in the concert hall, and then you have something really special.
Where do you think symphonies will be in 10 years in terms of their place in culture?
I think that’s where we have to evolve. We have to get out of the mindset that concert hall is church, though I suppose churches are having the same problems. We expected people to come where we are, but it’s more exciting now that we need an entire community to embrace us, even if they don’t come to every concert. We need to find some way to touch their lives, and I think orchestras are heading that way. In 10 years, I am excited to see what happens. All of us who are young conductors and young musicians, we all went through the Recession while we were in music school. Non of us is under any illusions about what we need to do. All of us understand what it means to be a music director, what it means to be a musician – talking with audience members, being out there. After concerts, now, I see musicians in the lobby talking with patrons, taking time at intermission to talk with people, talking with people from the stage. That didn’t happen 10 years ago. I think we’re going in a great direction. Every person going into music knows what we’re up against.
I can’t help asking what you think of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle.
I love everything that happens off the stage, but I couldn’t keep watching because of everything that happens on the stage. I love the off-stage stuff! Some of it I’m like yup, been there, er, not done that, but I’ve seen it. But onstage? To have a concert with what, five oboes and a piano on stage that the piece doesn’t even call for? No.
Thanks for your time, and good luck!
Bartok Piano Concerto
Conducted by Franceso Lecce-Chong, soloist Soyeon Kate Lee
8 pm Thursday, March 16
Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall
Tickets start at $10 for youth; $21 for adults