Francesco Lecce-Chong conducts the Eugene Symphony in his tryout.

Who gets the baton?

We handicap the race among three musicians who want to lead the Eugene Symphony

It’s all over now except for the hiring. Eugene Symphony’s yearlong music director search has all but ended, once more attracting national attention as the orchestra seeks to replace Danail Rachev when he leaves at the end of this season.

Many of you know why this job is so hot. In case you haven’t been paying attention, it’s because three of the last four music directors went on from Eugene to play in the musical big leagues. Marin Alsop (in Eugene 1989-1996) is now music director at Baltimore Symphony, the first woman ever to lead a top U.S. orchestra. Miguel Harth-Bedoya (1996-2002) leads the Fort Worth Symphony, and Giancarlo Guerrero (2002-2009) conducts the Nashville Symphony.

That’s like having your community college football quarterback drafted into the NFL three seasons in a row.

Here’s a quick look at the three finalists who want Rachev’s job. Each visited Eugene in recent months to conduct the orchestra in concert.

Dina Gilbert (“Jeel-BAIR”), a French Canadian from Montreal, was the first to come to town; she just finished a three-year stint as assistant conductor at the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Energetic as a hummingbird hopped up on nectar — and sometimes as flighty — Gilbert charmed musicians, staff, board members and the audience alike with her youth and energy. She conducted a program of Mozart, Korngold, Stravinsky and Dukas in December.

An advocate for new music, she likes to conduct soundtracks for video games and film; she talked with me in a short interview about the preparation involved in conducting an orchestra. “Our job is 99-percent done when the concert starts,” she said. “I spend 70 percent of my time reading scores. The public doesn’t see all the preparation we need to do before getting there.”

Ryan McAdams led the orchestra in January, just a week after the presidential inauguration, in a program that included works by Mozart, Barber and Brahms. Confident and articulate, he spoke at length in our interview about performing familiar works in unfamiliar ways. 

“We did this Don Giovanni on the Lower East Side in a dilapidated synagogue with no sets,” he said. “The costumes were simple, large pieces of fabric. And the audience felt this was new, cutting-edge material.” Opera News called the unusual production “by far the most enjoyable and thought-provoking Don Giovanni New York has heard in many a year.”

Then, earlier this month, Francesco Lecce-Chong showed up and led the orchestra in a program of Liszt, Bartók, Mozart and Ricard Strauss. The 29-year-old conductor, who first took the podium at age 16 to conduct a middle-school youth orchestra, initially struck me as the Goldilocks choice, positioned between Gilbert’s manic energy and McAdams’ corporate suave.

Lecce-Chong came across in an interview as talented and genuine, and his ideas for attracting a younger audience — that Holy Grail of orchestras around the world — had more to do with better performances and less with Millennial-baiting gimmickry.

At that point I figured the race was an even match between Lecce-Chong and McAdams, Gilbert having fallen behind due to nerves and inexperience. The symphony would do fine, I figured, with either one in charge.

Then I showed up at the Hult Center for Lecce-Chong’s concert. From the moment the music began — the program was pieces from Liszt, Bartók, Mozart and Ricard Strauss — you could hear something fundamentally new and different going on in the concert hall.

Lecce-Chong’s music was, well, music! He seemed to give the orchestra its voice in a way I haven’t heard in some time. And by the time he got to the Strauss — the suite from Der Rosenkavalier — my mind was floating somewhere in a dream of post-war Vienna.

My take: Lecce-Chong’s our guy, no doubt about it. He’s got the resume, he’s got the manner, but most of all he’s got the music.

I’m not the only one to be so impressed. Former NPR music critic Tom Manoff, who was at the concert, summed things up in a blog post: “Gilbert is a rookie; McAdams is a talent; but Lecce-Chong has the real gift.  He’s going to be a fast-rising talent in the music world. He’s the obvious choice for Eugene right now.”

The symphony expects to announce its selection in early May. 

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