Francesco Lecce-Chong, who started work last fall as music director at Eugene Symphony, has plunged into his new job with all the enthusiasm of a middle-school crush.
Sitting in an office one recent afternoon at the symphony’s headquarters downtown, Lecce-Chong fairly vibrated as he talked about the excitement and challenges of programming his first full season for an orchestra.
“It’s going to be my season!” he said. “My excuse this season was, I didn’t pick any of it. Well, I got to make a couple changes. And when I hit September with my first main performance with the orchestra, this” — he looked at the new program in my hand — “was still a draft.”
With the help of the symphony staff, Lecce-Chong pulled together his plan for the 2018-19 season, which was formally announced Wednesday, Feb. 14. The work was done in a fast-moving six months, during which he said he hardly slept for thinking and rethinking everything he wanted to do.
“Besides conducting, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
It took, he said, a lot of drafts to pull together nine regular evening programs to run from this fall through next summer. He researched half a century of Eugene Symphony past programs to find significant works the orchestra hasn’t tackled, and ended up with 14 pieces the orchestra has never performed.
The symphony, for example, has never done a work by Ernest Bloch, the Swiss-born composer who lived the last 18 years of his life in Oregon. So Lecce-Chong will conduct the orchestra in Bloch’s cello concerto “Schelomo,” with cellist Julie Albers, on opening night, Sept. 27.
Early in the process, Lecce-Chong penciled in some of his own favorite works, such as composer John Adams’ symphonic setting of themes from his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic, which tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer’s ambivalence as he helped develop the first nuclear bomb during World War II.
“That’s been on my bucket list for 10 years,” Lecce-Chong said.
The symphony includes an instrumental arrangement of the aria “Batter my Heart,” performed in the opera with words from a sonnet by John Donne. The aria, Lecce-Chong says, is one of the greatest works of contemporary music.
“I was at one of the first performances of the opera at the Met in New York. You are drained by the time that piece is over.”
So The Doctor Atomic Symphony is on the calendar for March 21, 2019, along with the Brahms violin concerto.
Speaking of concertos, Lecce-Chong said lining up soloists to play has its own challenges. Only a small handful of violinists in the world, for example, can pull off the Brahms. If they’re all booked, you find yourself another date. (Russian-born Grammy nominee Philippe Quint will perform the Brahms on March 21.)
Aug. 25, 2018, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. So the first three concerts of the season will feature works by the New York composer, including three dance episodes from On the Town on Sept. 27, his Symphony No. 2 on Oct. 18, and Fancy Free on Nov. 15.
Then there’s the matter of color. On April 18, 2019, the orchestra will perform a program titled “The Color of Sound”; the evening will include two pieces — Prometheus: The Poem of Fire and The Poem of Ecstasy — by Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), who strongly associated colors with notes of the scale.
The final regular concert will be May 9, when the orchestra and the Eugene Symphony Chorus will perform the Verdi Requiem, with soloists yet to be announced.
Three less formal events will fill out the calendar. The orchestra will perform John Williams’ soundtrack to the original Star Wars, aka Star Wars:Episode IV — A New Hope , while the movie is projected above the musicians on Dec. 1; on April 28, 2019, the orchestra will offer a family concert — and a visit from Beethoven himself — with “An Afternoon With Beethoven”; and on June 1, 2019, Eugene’s Ballet Fantastique, singer Halie Loren, trumpeter Tony Glausi, South Eugene High School’s The Dorians and members of the Eugene-Springfield Youth Symphony will collaborate with the orchestra and Lecce-Chong in another version of the popular SymFest. ■
See full details of the coming season at eugenesymphony.org.