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A personal message from Francesco Lecce-Chong

Dear Symphony Family, 
I hope this letter finds you and your loved ones well. I miss sharing music with you all in person, but rest assured that we are tirelessly pursuing every option to bring you music again as soon as possible, while keeping our community safe during this pandemic. While I cannot wait to share these plans with you, I write to you today as another wave of grief and suffering washes over our nation. I have personally struggled with how to respond as a leader while avoiding making empty promises or Twitter-length statements. I have settled on a letter directly to you – musicians, staff, board, volunteers, donors and audience members – because we rely on each other to keep our orchestra vibrant and relevant in our community.

Let me be clear: I know we stand together against injustice and racism. I know that we believe music and creativity provides an outlet to process and perhaps even overcome violence, pain and suffering. I know that we believe when we lift up and support those who need a voice in our community, we all are made better for it. Right now, many of us are finding our way to respond to the senseless killing of George Floyd and so many other Black lives – through peaceful protesting, donating, listening, reading and engaging in conversations with each other. 

I also know that many in our community have differing and passionately held views on how musicians and arts organizations should respond during times like this. I think the arts are more important than ever, because it is one of the few spaces left in our lives that can bring people together across different backgrounds, beliefs, cultures, education, and the list goes on – it’s our one universal language. Having gotten to know many of you on a very personal level, I can appreciate how incredible it is that music is able to bring people together who otherwise might not be able to have a civil conversation over dinner. I think that is something to be celebrated and I continue to believe that music is one of the most powerful forms of conciliation and understanding. 

I write to you today not on behalf of the Eugene Symphony or the Santa Rosa Symphony, but as myself, as one voice seeking a path for making our community a better place for all. Even though I know that by voicing my thoughts I have the potential to upset, anger and disappoint many of you, I believe you deserve to know where your musical leader stands on issues that affect us all. Ultimately, I hope you will remember what binds us together: our belief that music strengthens our community by bringing us closer to one another. 

This past weekend, I finally broke down and cried. I attended a virtual service of the church that I grew up in – Boulder Mennonite Church. I had been trying to process my horror and sadness into constructive action all week, but in a “service of lament” in honor of George Floyd, I felt the full force of how little I am able to ease the suffering around us. I still consider myself a Mennonite although I have a long way to go to live up to the incredible work for social justice that is at the center of Mennonite theology. Nonviolent protest is an important part of how Mennonites have helped those who need a voice around the world, whether it was in Iraq or along the U.S./Mexico border. I wanted to give you this background because I think their work serves as a basis for my own thoughts and actions when it comes to inspiring change through music. Mennonites may not be the loudest religious organization right now, but their actions speak far louder than any words and their willingness to engage with communities on both sides of an issue allow for the important work of reconciliation in areas of conflict. This outlook is what I hope to continue in my letter to you today, and my discussions with you all in the long road ahead.

I am optimistic that what we are experiencing now will lead to real, lasting change in our country – it feels like the momentum and breadth of support from individuals, businesses, organizations and a diverse array of leaders to fight racism is becoming the unifying force it needs to be in order to succeed. As far as the vision of orchestras, I am more worried – perhaps because this is a world I know too well. I have lost count of the number of conferences, projects and press releases over the past decade from orchestras proclaiming the latest way they will be a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion. These one-off projects usually get the orchestra much needed funding from governments and foundations, but the result has been little change or, even worse, backtracking as soon as the funding runs out. The painful truth is, change in the orchestra world takes time, but it can happen with commitment from the right people.

When orchestras focused on the discrimination that was keeping women out of major orchestras in the 1950s, they enacted blind auditions and there was a grassroots change in attitude among orchestra musicians themselves. Even with tenure in place (meaning very little turnover in orchestra positions) from 1963-2014, the Chicago Symphony went from three women to 41 out of 100, and the New York Philharmonic went from zero women to 44 out of 100.

So what does lasting change in our organization look like when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion? That is the question we must answer in order to begin our work. I take full responsibility for not raising this issue sooner in my tenure and I am wracked by guilt for allowing myself to think that “doing better than other orchestras” was good enough. I am so proud and grateful to be a part of the Santa Rosa Symphony and Eugene Symphony – two organizations whose community work and innovation on stage far outpaces orchestras of our size. Both organizations have many incredible programs in place to empower marginalized groups in our communities like Santa Rosa’s Simply Strings program, which gives daily, after-school music lessons at a predominantly Latinx elementary school, and the Eugene Symphony’s Symphony Connect program that partners with human service agencies to bring chamber music to populations who may not otherwise be able to come to the concert hall. Programs like these were in place before I arrived because of the foresight, passion and generosity that you all have for your orchestra and your community.

I know that we will continue to bolster and grow these life-changing programs in the years to come. This leaves me to consider the one glaring fault in our organizations: our programming – the music the orchestra and I make together on stage. I should say first and foremost, I disagree strongly with colleagues right now who have very swiftly committed to having a Black composer on every program next season. The fact is that our collective programming across the U.S. has failed on every level to bring diversity into the concert hall – living composers, women composers, Black composers, Latinx composers, Asian composers, even American composers are all woefully underrepresented on stage. Committing to only one group will reduce the very diversity we need. Over the past few seasons, you have joined me in experiencing the works of living, American composers as one of the ways to celebrate the eternal vitality of our art form and that has introduced us to important voices like Jessie Montgomery and our upcoming Composer-in-Residence Angélica Negrón. But I can and must do more. You hired me to bring you thrilling musical experiences and to enrich our community with the transformational power of music. Embracing a more diverse repertoire is not separate from that goal, but a means to achieving it.

I should mention that this does not mean throwing away our so-called “core repertoire.” Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Symphony is more relevant right now than ever before, and the struggles of Tchaikovsky and Brahms bring us comfort in these times. My measure of success will not be simply “checking the boxes” of diversity, equity and inclusion – but instead finding integrated and sustainable ways to support musical voices that reflect our world today. This is why I am not asking for support to take our orchestra in a new direction. Quite the contrary, I intend to lead us in further embracing the work we are doing in our community and to find meaningful ways to support that work even more on stage.

I recognize that I have made some strong statements in this letter. One cannot only be passionate on stage! However, I wanted to speak to you – directly and honestly – because this is an invitation to engage with me and each other in the coming weeks, months and years. If we are as firmly rooted in our love for music and our community as I know we are, we have nothing to fear in discussing how our orchestra can more fully represent us all. We will disagree and struggle with each other at times, but then we will be back in the concert hall, where we can move through our differences in a shared experience that perhaps helps us better understand each other in the end. I believe we will come together to perform and listen more intensely, more passionately, more devotedly than ever before. I invite you to believe with me.

Sincerely yours,

Francesco Lecce-Chong
Music Director


 Photo by Susan and Neil Silverman Photography

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