Looking back to the start of his career, Francesco Lecce-Chong is grateful that the Milwaukee Symphony let him make mistakes.
Lecce-Chong served as the MSO’s assistant conductor from 2011 to 2015 before leaving to take a similar position with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Now he is the music director of the symphony orchestras of Eugene, Ore., and Santa Rosa, Calif., and a busy guest conductor – including an engagement with the MSO June 21-23 to conduct Carl Orff’s popular Carmina burana.
“Milwaukee was so special to me, and I can’t express how special it is to return,” he said recently by phone, in between rehearsals of the Verdi Requiem with the Eugene Symphony. He has come back twice before as a guest conductor, and “I get the feeling that they’re proud of what I’ve been able to do.”
When he was first hired here, “I was 24, and I knew how to conduct, but that was about it,” Lecce-Chong remembered. He wasn’t used to working with an ensemble of the MSO’s caliber, and “especially that first year, I had a lot to learn. I look back and I think, A, oh my God, why did I do that, and B, it probably shouldn’t have gone as well as it did, but the musicians rescued me. The orchestra wanted me to succeed. I made mistakes, but I learned from them and I got better.”
He also learned a lot from Edo de Waart, the MSO’s music director during Lecce-Chong’s tenure. “He was a great music director, aside from being an incredible conductor,” Lecce-Chong said. “As a music director, you develop an understanding of each one of your musicians, and how they play together, and you harness that. Edo built the very rich sound that the Milwaukee Symphony plays with now.”
The most obvious music director duties are programming the season and hiring new musicians. Speaking of the latter, Lecce-Chong said, “The level of playing nowadays is astronomical. You get down to the five finalists, and you could flip a coin. I feel bad for them, because it comes down to personal preference.” But he praised de Waart’s skill at “sensing, from their playing, how they would fit in the orchestra. He told me once that it had taken him a long time to develop that.”
And programming a season, or even an individual concert, is harder than Lecce-Chong expected. “You don’t know how it’s going to go,” he said. “You can’t tell by how it looks on paper.” For this particular concert, Carmina burana was already in place, and the MSO asked if he had ideas for the first half of the program. That was his opening to suggest John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony. “It represents the best of new music,” he said. “It’s the strongest piece written in the last 20 years. I wanted to show why new music is so important, and why it can be as powerful as the great classics.”
Adams, a longtime associate of de Waart, came to Milwaukee in 2014 for a three-week festival of his work, and Lecce-Chong met him then. And following the intensity and weight of Adams on the first half, the blockbuster celebration of life that is Carmina burana should be a good way to end the concert, Lecce-Chong said.
Lecce-Chong has expanded his commitment to new music with the recently announced First Symphony project. It’s relatively easy for present-day composers to get a 10-minute overture performed, but the Eugene and Santa Rosa symphonies have now commissioned four composers to write full-length symphonies over the next four seasons.
“I want to support my colleagues, musicians I really believe in,” said Lecce-Chong, who contributed some of his own money to the fundraising for the project. “In the last 10 years, new music is in the best place it’s been for the past 50 years, if not more.” Composers of the post-World War II generation “wanted to be brutal,” he said, but Adams and younger composers “have gone back to wanting to communicate with the audience, wanting them to be moved by their music.”
When Lecce-Chong is not in Eugene or Santa Rosa, he is usually in Miami with his fiancée, Chloe Tula, a harpist with the New World Symphony, or on the road as a guest conductor. Maybe someday, he hopes, another orchestra will let him program one of the new symphonies that he’s commissioned.