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Get to know Francesco Lecce-Chong, music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, April 10, 2020

Ask Santa Rosa Symphony Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong if classical music is dying, and he’ll be brutally honest. He acknowledges that the 300-year-old tradition got a bit too comfortable and was slow to adapt to a changing world.

Then he dismisses its death knell, sweeping it aside with his own unabashed passion for the art form.

“My personal opinion is that right now is the most exciting time for orchestras because ... we’re trying new things,” he told the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2018 before leaving as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “Frankly, we’re just not that accessible sometimes, and we don’t show enough joy in what we do.”

Since being appointed to the Santa Rosa Symphony in March 2018, Lecce-Chong, 32, has proven himself both accessible and joyous, unassuming and brilliant, not only in his programming but in his interactions with the community, staff and musicians.

“We’ve all been getting to know each other this season,” said Joe Edelberg, the unflappable concertmaster of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “He’s friendly, respectful and demanding. My sense is that the orchestra developed trust in him pretty quickly.”

Over the past two seasons, symphony staff also have grown to value Lecce-Chong’s integrity, his collaborative style of leadership and his ability to relate to all ages, especially to young adults while leading one family concert a year, the first music director in the symphony’s history to take on that duty.

“Francesco’s positive impact and contribution has gone far beyond our admittedly high expectations,” said Alan Silow, the symphony’s president and CEO. “It includes creative programming, an articulate insight into the magic of new music and a major contribution to supporting our educational programs, which he deeply values.”

Audiences have taken note of the charismatic energy Lecce-Chong brings to the concert hall — that mysterious “it” factor — that makes the music viscerally and visually exciting, whether it’s an old warhorse like Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in January or the world premiere of Matt Browne’s Symphony No. 1, “The Course of Empire,” in February.

One of his motivations as a conductor is to connect people through the experience of live music.

“I have become so passionate about how an orchestra can be a center for people to come together,” Leece-Chong said. “It’s like a lifestyle. I have so many ideas to build on that, but it’s so exciting for me to go into a community (like Santa Rosa) that has a foot up in understanding this.”

Although the symphony’s final two concert programs of the season had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lecce-Chong did conduct a solid run of five concert sets from October through February and planned the 2020-2021 season, which will be the symphony’s second full season under his leadership.

Although the symphony’s final two concert programs of the season had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lecce-Chong did conduct a solid run of five concert sets from October through February and planned the 2020-2021 season, which will be the symphony’s second full season under his leadership.

“It’s beautiful to remind people that I’m part of the orchestra.” he said. “We’re just doing this together.”

Last December, Lecce-Chong “play conducted” the orchestra from a fortepiano in a program that opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 and closed with Mozart’s Requiem.

The transparent Haydn symphony — nervous and fleet, spare and elegant — came alive with bristled energy, mostly because of its perfect pacing.
“You can’t just play it perfectly,” Lecce-Chong explained. “There is one tempo that opens up the piece. When I do the perfect tempo, I can see the musicians smile.”

Setting the tempo is perhaps the most crucial job of a conductor, along with communicating feeling and dynamics with the body, giving cues for key entrances and coordinating the orchestra with soloists.

The high-energy Lecce-Chong admits he feels comfortable staying slightly ahead of the beat, like a pace car in a race, showing everyone where the music is headed.

“As a young conductor, it’s better not to be clear than to be late,” he said. “You always have to be on the front side of the beat.”

During Mozart’s Requiem, Lecce-Chong drew an amazingly professional performance out of the SSU Symphonic Chorus, especially on the enunciation of the consonants.

“When they rolled that first R, I knew it was going to be a good night,” he said. “I almost wanted to do a fist bump.”

The more he conducts, however, the more Lecce-Chong worries about the little details of a performance, he said. Perhaps he gave the perfect tempo, but then the orchestra slowed down. Perhaps he pushed the beat a little too much.

“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “The terrifying thing about being a music director is that you know it’s never going to be good enough.”

Looking ahead
Next season, Lecce-Chong will welcome some of his favorite soloists, such as the 19-year-old violinist Julian Rhee, recent winner of the 2020 Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition, and some under-the-radar composers.

There are two world premieres planned, including the second installment of the First Symphony Project, showcasing a major work by Bay Area composer Gabriella Smith, a protegé of composer John Adams. New music and innovative ideas are never far from Lecce-Chong’s mind.

“Her big love is nature and ecology,” he said of Smith. “And we may have her lead some nature hikes.”

Behind the scenes, Lecce-Chong is working on his long-term goal of improving the sound in the hall by bringing back some of the risers that reach to the edge of the stage. New risers built by the symphony’s own stage crew are still a work in progress, but they reappeared during the February concert under the violins and violas on the outside of the stage, after being thrown out.

“The new risers have an opening at the top, so they act like an amplifier,” Lecce-Chong said. “Essentially, we’ve added an instrument on stage.”

It was the first time he put his foot down about anything. So far, he’s been pleased with the results.

“Now I can see them, and they can see me,” he said. “You can’t hide, even if you’re in the back. So people play better, and we’re together now.”

“These musicians are so brilliant, and we have a hall that is the envy of the world,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we work to improve the sound?”

At home in Sonoma County
As each concert program this season grew in complexity and risk-taking, the conductor established more stable footing in the community, getting to know the region better.

“I’m obsessed with Bodega Bay,” he said. “I drive out there to the beach and look at the ocean.”

For part of each month, he rents a Santa Rosa apartment he can retreat to between rehearsals.

“It’s nice to have a mailing address,” he said. “At a hotel, you can’t cook and you can’t get things delivered. Now I know I’m going to sleep well.”


Although he can be intensely sociable, Lecce-Chong said he’s also an introvert who needs down time to work and to plan. He tends to be private about his personal life, but that’s not always possible.

“I realize that part of selling my art form is selling me,” he said.

“My mother and childhood anecdotes always end up in my pre-concert lectures.”

For the past three years, Lecce-Chong has been visiting Miami to spend time with his fiancée, harpist Chloe Tula, who won a three-year Harp Fellowship with the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas.

Since the 2018-2019 classical music season, he’s also commuted to Oregon to lead the Eugene Symphony, where he also serves as music director. Having two West Coast symphonies to lead has simplified his travel itinerary, at least when he doesn’t have guest conducting gigs.

“In one month, I usually spend a week here (in Santa Rosa) and a week in Eugene.”

In mid-March, Lecce-Chong was on the runway in Miami headed to Oregon when his remaining concerts of the season were postponed. He went to Eugene for a day, then returned to Tula in Miami, where they are hunkered down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although he feels fortunate to be able to work from Miami, the maestro confessed the scenario felt a little like “marriage boot camp.”

“You guys get to spend two months together in a one-bedroom apartment, and you can’t go out?” he joked. “It feels like a reality show, sometimes. Let’s see what happens to this couple.”

Meanwhile, the couple may have to postpone their mid-June wedding in Portland, Oregon, so guests don’t have to make the decision of staying safe or attending the party. Since some of his symphony concerts have been rescheduled for June, it’s not going to be easy to jam in a wedding, let alone a honeymoon.

Meanwhile, Lecce-Chong is excited about a new “at home” program on his personal webpage (leccechong.com/flc@home), where he is holding Happy Hour Watch Parties of famous performances and sharing Spotify playlists (including non-classical music he’s listening to like The Beach Boys) and posting educational videos he and Tula are working on together.

“I think it’s so vital that we find ways to stay connected with our audience, many of whom are most at risk,” he said. “Also, all these music students are at home, and parents are trying to deal with education ... so we’re doing a video each week.”

While he’s feeling good about having the time to connect with more audience members online, he also notes disappointment over the canceled concerts.
“I feel the weight of thousands of people who were looking forward to these concerts,” he said. “I thought I could connect people to this music, and suddenly I don’t have it anymore.”

Organic intro to music
An only child, Lecce-Chong was born in San Francisco to an architect father and artist mother. The family moved to Boulder, Colorado when he was 5, and he stayed there through high school. He considers himself a Colorado native, but his storyline has changed now that he’s based on the West Coast.
“My bio has gotten really confusing,” he said. “Now I’m a San Francisco-born, Colorado native.”

His parents met in New York City. His father, Curtis, studied architecture at Columbia while his mother, Catherine, studied visual art at Marymount College. Lecce-Chong is the only musician in his family.

“I was very fortunate that my parents were very arts-oriented, even though they weren’t musicians,” he said. “They had a few classical CDs — the Karajan Beethoven symphonies that I was obsessed with, and one or two others.”

More importantly, there was an old, upright piano from his grandmother in the house. One of his babysitters taught him to play his first little ditty — “Heart and Soul” — and he got hooked.

“I was so into it, and so relentless about it that my parents decided to give me formal lessons,” he said. “But everything about me becoming a musician was very organic.”

Initially enamored with baseball, Lecce-Chong never thought about a career in music — he was initially enamored with baseball — until he joined a Boulder youth orchestra. He played piano, violin and viola in the orchestra. By 16, he had started to conduct.

“The woman conductor there has always been my inspiration,” he said. “She gave lessons in exchange for helping her out. She believed in me when I didn’t know what I was doing.”

As soon as he conducted his first piece in public — the Russian Dance (Trepak) from “The Nutcracker” ballet — something clicked inside.

“I’ve always been as much of a people person as a musician,” he said. “As it turns out, I like working with a lot of people.”

A smooth trajectory
Lecce-Chong decided on the Mannes College of Music in New York City after he found a piano teacher there he wanted to work with. He studied composing and piano for a year, then dropped composing and transferred over to the conducting program, graduating with a double major.

Next, he won a fellowship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and studied with the legendary Otto-Werner Mueller, a German-born conductor who served as his mentor.

Lecce-Chong left Curtis early to take a job as associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and never looked back.

“I was so lucky,” he said. “I don’t know many others who have had as smooth a trajectory. ... I was always worried that I would not work, but I always worked.”

After four years in Milwaukee, he spent three years as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. There, he deepened his understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of a professional orchestra, talking to the musicians about what style of conducting worked for them.

In April 2017, he was chosen out of 200 candidates to lead the Eugene Symphony, following in the footsteps of renowned predecessors such as Marin Alsop. Almost a year later, in March 2018, the Santa Rosa Symphony board unanimously chose him as its fifth music director in the orchestra’s long history.

Along the way, Lecce-Chong has continued to guest conduct all over the world, from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra to the New York Philharmonic. His debut leading the San Francisco Symphony in June 2019 was met with critical acclaim.

“Lecce-Chong’s energetic leadership, which made room as well for interludes of tender lyricism, was a constant source of excitement,” music critic Joshua Kosman wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Strong relationships
While local symphony supporters hope Lecce-Chong will choose Santa Rosa as his full-time home, the conductor is leaving that decision to his fiancée, who has been planning their wedding long-distance from Miami. The conductor maintains that no matter where they end up, his willingness to spend extra time in Sonoma County outside of rehearsals and performances is what really counts.

Since he joined the symphony, he has put in long days, pinballing between meetings with community members and donors, business leaders and school and college music programs. In between, he carries out administrative duties and makes the rounds of the symphony’s four youth orchestras.

Sonoma State University Orchestra Director Alexander Kahn, who serves as Lecce-Chong’s unofficial assistant during rehearsals, said he is impressed by the conductor’s constant high level of preparedness, with all of his scores carefully analyzed and often memorized.

“His conducting is always expressive and full of information, which allows him to show what he wants without wasting too many words,” Kahn said. “When he does speak, he expresses himself humbly and with self-deprecating humor in a way that lets the musicians know that he respects them and enjoys their company.”

If he could be faulted for anything, it might be that Lecce-Chong leans a bit heavily on the well-known standards in his programming. But performing cornerstones of the repertoire is a bit like speed dating for the young conductor, a fast and efficient way he can get to know the orchestra, and vice versa.

And his clear vision of the music makes even familiar pieces sound new again.

“I was really proud of the way the orchestra handled the Brahms this season,” Lecce-Chong said. “They proved they could take it to another level.”

Like many conductors, Lecce-Chong tries to find a balance between the traditional interpretation of a work and the desire to invent a new one, so that each concert adds to the audience’s understanding of the music.

“Classical music has the most history behind us, so it can be scary because we feel like we’re trying to preserve something,” he said. “But it should never feel like we’re preserving Beethoven’s greatness. The question is, how do we communicate how great it is?”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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