Francesco Lecce-Chong Hits the Ground Running with Eugene Symphony

The new symphony conductor meets a student orchestra

When Eugene Symphony’s new music director Francesco Lecce-Chong took the podium Monday night, he explained that the musicians arrayed in front of him were perfect for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

That’s because they were all teenagers, members of the Eugene Springfield Youth Symphony, who were rehearsing in the band room at South Eugene High School.

Professional musicians, the conductor explained, might have better technique but they can be too cool and restrained in making music. The Fifth embodies the kind of passions that rage during adolescence. “Love and death!” he said. “Don’t be afraid to go for it!”

Lecce-Chong’s visit to the orchestra’s rehearsal is part of a larger campaign the 30-year-old conductor has been waging since he took over from Danail Rachev on July 1. In brief, Lecce-Chong intends to become a well known part of the greater Eugene-Springfield community, not just another musician known only to symphony fans.

As a first step, he’s moved here and rented an apartment in downtown Eugene. Unlike most of his predecessors at the symphony, who commuted in for concerts, he actually lives here.

Since his arrival, Lecce-Chong has also been out pressing the flesh around town.

He conducted the University of Oregon Marching Band playing the National Anthem at Ducks’ football season opener in Autzen Stadium. He’s talked to the Rotary Club. And he’s expanded the traditional pre-concert talk, with its somewhat classroom feel, by adding in a symphony happy hour at a local pub one evening before the concert.

And he delighted an audience of 5,000 at the symphony’s free summer pops concert in Cuthbert Amphitheater last July when he conducted the Star Wars theme by waving a light saber in place of his usual baton.

“Some people are going to think I conduct everything with a light saber,” he said later.

At this week’s youth symphony rehearsal, Lecce-Chong singled out the string players for a pep talk. One particular passage from the Tchaikovsky, he told the players, should blow the roof right off the band room. “You should really be wailing away. Hold nothing back! From the moment we hit that note we should be one wild hurricane!”

The young musicians immediately played louder — and better.

In a more-restrained moment before he left, turning the rehearsal back over to David Jacobs, the regular conductor, Lecce-Chong talked about the huge importance of youth orchestras in his own life and career.

“The reason I’m here is because of a youth orchestra,” he said. “And I’ll never forget that.”

Playing in an orchestra, he went on, requires a wide range of skills sometimes not fully appreciated even by musicians.

He began to list them: You have to be able to read music, he said. You mustdevelop proper technique. You have to understand how to follow the conductor. And, he said, you must learn to listen.

“Listening is the most important skill in an orchestra,” Lecce-Chong said. “Don’t think about this too hard, But what you are doing is amazing.”

Before he left, the conductor added one more item to that list.

“The last thing is, it requires your own heart. Your own emotional life. So don’t ever take what you’re doing for granted!”