Are we living in the best of times or the worst of times? When it comes to performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, it doesn’t matter. Beethoven’s final symphony, known for its “Ode to Joy” chorus, is always relevant, Eugene Symphony music director and conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong tells Eugene Weekly.
The Eugene Symphony’s upcoming 2022-23 concert season starts Oct. 23. The whole season takes on classical music’s giants, from well known ballet works, the second act of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Beethoven’s Ninth. But the upcoming season isn’t just focused on the dead white guys of the classical world. It also includes works by rising composers whose careers are skyrocketing, Lecce-Chong says.
Like most performing arts organizations, the pandemic affected the Eugene Symphony’s production timeline, including its First Symphony project, a four-year endeavor that began in 2019 in partnership with Santa Rosa Symphony that commissioned brand new long-form orchestral work by four modern American composers.
The composers whose work is slated for performance in the upcoming season are Angélica Negrón and Gabriella Smith. “They are two of the most exciting young composers,” he says. “If we hadn’t commissioned them four years ago, I’m not sure they’d be available.”
Negrón and Smith, he says, have been commissioned by some of the U.S.’s largest symphony orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and other orchestras in Seattle and Dallas. “All of the biggest orchestras are clamoring to commission them for new work,” he says. “That we’re going to bring premieres of new symphonies in the same season is so exciting and what a momentous occasion for our community to be a part of. Two composers who I think are shaping the music world and will continue to for many, many years.”
The Eugene Symphony has three well known ballet pieces in the season: Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Lecce-Chong says these are fantastic ballets to see, but the concerts put a focus on music that wasn’t written for small pit ensembles, rather for large orchestras that use a lot of unusual instruments. “All of the drama will still be there in the music,” he says. But with a focus on the music and not dance, the audience can hear the compositions in the best way.
Starting last season, the Eugene Symphony began a three-year-long project of performing Wagner’s influential opera as a way to address the endurace factor required of the audience and musicians by the nearly four-hour work.
The first act of Tristan und Isolde, performed this year, was the most memorable performance of Lecce-Chong’s life. “I still feel like I’m floating, just thinking about how incredible that experience was,” he says. Performing Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, he says, is usually reserved for the world’s top opera houses, not the Hult Center. And musicians and members of the Eugene Symphony Chorus know the rare opportunity of performing Wagner’s iconic work. “I know everyone in the orchestra is champing at the bit for Act II.”
The only work that could likely rival Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, an orchestral work that changed how symphonies were written — and created the superstition that composers would die after writing their ninth symphony.
When Lecce-Chong was programming the concert season, he says the Eugene Symphony has gone two seasons without performing alongside the Eugene Symphony Chorus. And Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was the perfect occasion, Lecce-Chong says. The symphony is also an inspiration for the musicians to perform the piece well. “Even though the chorus is only used in the last movement, it’s a huge thing for them. They really have to rise to the occasion,” he says. “And the orchestra has to rise to the occasion just because it’s a massive piece.”
Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony when he became deaf. “He wrote this entire work knowing he would never hear it,” Lecce-Chong says. “It’s just another level of how remarkable the creation of this work was and what it must have meant for him to only hear it in his head. For anyone to hear a piece like this in their head, is beyond understanding. That’s why we’re talking about Beethoven. So much of his genius we can only begin to understand little bits of pieces of it.”
This will be the first time that Lecce-Chong conducts Beethoven’s magnum opus, and he says he’s happy to join his predecessors who’ve taken on the piece, such as former Eugene Symphony music directors Marin Alsop and Giancarlo Guerrero. It’s a piece that when performed live impresses itself on the audience, becoming a concert that isn’t forgotten. “That’s the power of the piece,” he adds.
For more information about the Eugene Symphony’s 2022-23 season, visit EugeneSymphony.org.