Santa Rosa Symphony Logo
Menu

Current Reviews

Santa Rosa’s new conductor comes south for a thrilling SF Symphony debut

By: , June 7, 2019 - Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle - Datebook

Like the Bluebird of Happiness, conducting talent can sometimes be nesting right in your own backyard. Take, for example, Francesco Lecce-Chong, the young American conductor who made a first-rate debut with the San Francisco Symphony on Thursday, June 6.

This was his first appearance in Davies Symphony Hall, but Lecce-Chong just completed his inaugural season as music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony – which means that his gifts have been in plain view for a while now to anyone willing to take a quickish jaunt up Highway 101 (or, obviously, to anyone who already lives in that neighborhood).

What Lecce-Chong may yet be able to achieve with that orchestra over the long term remains to be seen, but there was no mistaking the vitality and brilliance of the music-making he drew from members of the San Francisco Symphony. He’s got a firm but flexible rhythmic control that allows him to shepherd an orchestra at top speed without losing a bit of precision, and he can shape big instrumental textures with a robustness and grace that is inspiring to behold.

Perhaps best of all, Lecce-Chong seems to be a resourceful and imaginative programmer. Thursday’s lineup did include one standard offering, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, which got a capable but flavorless reading from soloist David Fray.

But other than that, Lecce-Chong went for the offbeat and slightly unusual — and made the choices pay off time and again.

He led off, for instance, with the ballet music from Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” — music the Symphony hasn’t played in concert since 1977 — and rendered it with such vigor and clarity that a listener could only think, “Why don’t we hear this more often?” He returned to the operatic world after intermission with a glowing, ominous account of the overture to Verdi’s opera “I Vespri Siciliani.”

Finally, and most stirringly, there was “In the South (Alassio),” Elgar’s strangely exuberant musical postcard from an Italian vacation in which nothing quite went according to plan. The composer and his family seem to have landed amid a stretch of cold, rainy weather, prompting him to send a series of characteristically gloomy letters home — and yet much of the music is as sunny and celebratory as that of other Northern composers who crossed the Alps for a little R&R.

Throughout it all, Lecce-Chong and the orchestra found a musical vein that combined buoyant, potentially overcaffeinated tempos with the clarity of purpose to pull it off. The opening movement of the Mozart ballet music sounded superbly peppy and propulsive (one could imagine dancers raising a complaint if they had to keep time at this speed, but for a concert audience it was wonderful). Playing the opera’s five ballet movements together in an unbroken stream created the possibility of awkward hairpin curves in the transitions, but Lecce-Chong maneuvered those shifts without breaking a sweat.

Operatic overtures don’t always sit comfortably out of context — especially Verdi’s, which are so intimately tied to the dramas they’re meant to set up — but the “Vespri” music held the stage without compromise or apology. And Elgar’s rich musical tapestry, with its echoes of Wagner and Strauss, created a vibrant series of pictorial effects topped by an exquisite solo by principal violist Jonathan Vinocour.

Lecce-Chong’s energetic leadership, which made room as well for interludes of tender lyricism, was a constant source of excitement. Fortunately, we don’t even have to rely on the San Francisco Symphony to experience it again.

San Francisco Symphony:  8 p.m. Friday, June 7, and Saturday, June 8. $50-$225. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. 415-864-6000. www.sfsymphony.org

Contact Us

Santa Rosa Symphony
Administrative Office:
50 Santa Rosa Ave
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
Administration: (707) 546-7097

Patron Services Hours: 
M-F - 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM
W – 10:30 AM – 5:00 PM
Closed Saturdays & Sundays
Patron Services: (707) 546-8742