For more than six years, Francesco Lecce-Chong has been an exuberant leading figure of the Eugene Symphony. When conducting concerts, he enthusiastically shares the history of classical music works and has been an advocate for new music.
Lecce-Chong’s stay at the Eugene Symphony is coming to an end, a tenure that he says is notable for the increased performance of new classical music. On Jan. 16, the organization announced that he would remain as music director through 2024 and become an artistic partner from 2024 to 2025 while the Eugene Symphony searches for his successor.
“There’s been nothing in Eugene that has held me back in any way,” Lecce-Chong says. “That’s the true success story around Eugene, and all of these wonderful music directors that have come out of Eugene, is that we have been given these remarkable opportunities to lead to bring a vision of how an orchestra can impact its communities in the most incredible ways.”
Hired in 2017, Lecce-Chong will have served as the organization’s music director and conductor for a similar length of time as some of his predecessors, including Marin Alsop and Giancarlo Guerrero, both of whom held the position for seven years.
Being a music director is a job that Lecce-Chong says he’s dreamed of having since he was 18 years old. And even though he didn’t know where Eugene was in the U.S. then, he knew about the orchestra, which had developed a name for itself because of its previous music directors’ accomplishments, such as Alsop, who would go on to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The agreement between Lecce-Chong and Eugene Symphony to be an artistic partner, a position that would have less commitment than music director, from 2024 to 2025 allows a smooth transition, he says. “The music director is trying to do all of their biggest and best projects in their final season and, at the same time, the organization is trying to vet and bring in guest conductors,” he says.
The Eugene Symphony’s 2023-24 season won’t be announced until March, so Lecce-Chong didn’t share any of the programming besides the third act of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and that it could see some familiar artists who have performed with the Eugene Symphony during his lead.
A sizable amount of Lecce-Chong’s tenure — nearly two years — at the symphony has seen him and the orchestra adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, he took to social media to hold music educational sessions with the public, and the symphony slowly returned to the stage, first live streamed concerts and then full attendance events.
Lecce-Chong says what he brought to the Eugene Symphony that will mark his time here is the amount of new music that the organization commissioned, notably its First Symphony Project, and world premieres. The symphony is continuing its First Symphony Project series with the world premiere of Angélica Negrón’s Sinfonía Isleña on Feb. 16.
“I know they did that in the past, but I would have to say the collaborations that I brought to the orchestra, the number of them that we’ve done with artists of different disciplines, has definitely taken it to a new level,” he says. “There’s a lot of things for a new music director to work with and kind of bring their own vision.”
In a Jan. 16 press release, the symphony said that the 13-person search committee, which will hire the next music director and conductor, will be named in early February. The committee will retain Roger Saydack as a consultant. Saydack has chaired five music director searches since 1989 for the Eugene Symphony, and his handbook on the process is an industry standard.
“It does put a candidate through the wringer, not just so the orchestra can make sure that they found the right person, but also make sure that the candidate is comfortable with what the job entails,” Lecce-Chong says. Studying to become a music director didn’t totally prepare Lecce-Chong for the position at Eugene Symphony. Sure, he says it taught him how to perform and lead rehearsals, but it didn’t prepare him for managing musician morale, working with donors and collaborating with staff. “It’s not just those moments when you’re on stage together.”
The Eugene Symphony music director is a coveted job, Lecce-Chong says. When he was hired, he says more than 250 people applied for it, and he expects it to attract even more applicants in 2024. Considering how much talent today’s conductors have, he says he’s optimistic about the Eugene Symphony’s future.
“Eugene isn’t the kind of orchestra that is ever going to just sit back,” Lecce-Chong says. “This is great because next year I get to put everything I have into the season, but then the next season after will be truly spectacular.”
As for Lecce-Chong, he says he’ll still have his job as music director at Santa Rosa Symphony, a position that he’s held during his time at Eugene Symphony. “Wherever I am, it’s about connecting with people,” he says. “Music and people are the two things that drive me. And wherever that takes me next, I’m really excited for that adventure.”