Francesco Lecce-Chong is on a road trip with his fiancée, the harpist Chloe Tula, when I talk with him about what could be the best year of his life.
They’re lugging a harp in a van, driving from Miami, Florida, up to Lenox, Massachusetts, for a performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival.
And what do a couple of musicians listen to in the car? It’s not classical music, because that’s for work, Lecce-Chong says.
Instead, three days of seven-hour drives have been filled with podcasts, classic rock ‘n’ roll and Cardi B. Yes, Eugene Symphony’s music director and conductor Lecce-Chong and his fiancée listen to Top-40 music — to “keep up with the kids,” he says.
Since he’s in the car on a road trip, it means he has time to talk about his amazing 2019. So far, this year includes guest conducting at the San Francisco Symphony, a scheduled debut with the New York Philharmonic for the upcoming Young People’s Concerts and conducting alongside celebrity composer John Williams.
Lecce-Chong, 31, was born in San Francisco. Although he was raised in Colorado, he spent a lot of time as a kid in the Bay Area. Being a musician from an early age, it makes sense that when you make frequent trips to San Francisco, you’re going to attend tons of concerts.
“Whenever you’re on the podium, you hear a lot detail that’s really remarkable with an orchestra like that,” he says.
When Lecce-Chong took the podium for concerts in San Francisco June 6-8, he put together a music program that he was comfortable with. He didn’t want to perform any pieces of music that the symphony plays consistently — that would open him up to being compared to some of the greatest conductors of all time.
It’s a performance that will stay with him for the rest of his life, Lecce-Chong says.
Performing with a high caliber orchestra didn’t mean that he chose music that he wouldn’t be able to do in Eugene, however.
“If there’s anything that I’ve proven over the past few years is that we can play anything,” he says. “That double Scriabin bill that we did in April is something most major orchestras would never attempt.”
During Lecce-Chong’s time at the Eugene Symphony, he’s made music education for concertgoers a priority, following Leonard Bernstein’s passion for increasing access to classical music. Being invited to take part in the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concert is a huge honor for him, he says.
For Bernstein’s centennial last year, Lecce-Chong did seven different Bernstein programs with five different orchestras. As the world celebrated the American composer’s music, Lecce-Chong says he felt frustrated about the lack of conversation around Bernstein’s dedication to improve music education in the concert hall.
“Everywhere I went I tried to make that a big part of why we should celebrate him,” he says. “It’s what he did as a music director in New York that inspired a whole generation of musicians.”
Today, many big-time music directors aren’t as dedicated to family concerts as Bernstein was and instead delegate these duties to younger conductors or assistants, Lecce-Chong says. However, he’s brought energy to family concerts, so kids can meet him — not an assistant or guest conductor.
“When those kids grow up, I want them to remember going to family concerts and that it was a big deal,” he adds. “It wasn’t just entertainment or education. It was an experience of the orchestra.”
Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, which were broadcast nationally, let the audience experience the orchestra and composers in an accessible way and let the music speak for itself, introducing audience to complicated lives and compositions of composers like Dmitri Shostakovich, he says.
“The fact that I get to go and be on the series is really cool for me, to know that I’m following Bernstein’s footsteps after spending a whole year advocating,” Lecce-Chong says.
The Young People’s Concert music program, which will be Nov. 9, hasn’t been established yet. All he knows is that it’ll focus on exploring the range of perspectives and cultures that created American music, which he’s excited for because of the bad image modern classical music has for being inaccessible for the everyday concertgoer.
Lecce-Chong focuses on music from this century to change concertgoers’ perceptions about new music. He’s included about 20 works of new classical music for the upcoming season between the Eugene Symphony and the Santa Rose Symphony, where he also serves as music director.
Newer classical music today is about communicating ideas, a departure from classical music written in the 1980s that featured high-minded, complex ideas understood by few. That’s not to say that this current classical music won’t have dissonance, but it’s written in a way that can still communicate to the audience and inspire, Lecce-Chong says.
“Almost every young composer I talk to, and I hear their music, I sense that desire to reach out,” he says. “That’s the essence of where we are in the 21st century.”
Lecce-Chong says he’s excited to be a part of the Young People’s Concert, where he can instruct younger concertgoers about American compositions. It all pales in comparison, though, when he talks about conducting a John Williams composition just a few feet away from the legendary composer.
“That was one of the coolest experiences — and terrifying,” he says. “All I had to do was conduct five minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with film. But John Williams was sitting five feet behind me.”
Lecce-Chong was a last-second add-on to the New World Symphony Gala in Miami, Florida, in March.
“I conducted that five-minute piece like I was conducting Mahler for Mahler,” he says with a laugh. “I gave every ounce that I had for that piece.”
You might think that a professional like Lecce-Chong would be aware that Williams is a few feet away and move on with conducting the piece. But then again, we’re talking about the guy who composed music to Star Wars, Indiana Jones and only needed two notes to make people afraid of a shark.
That whole time at the podium, Lecce-Chong never forgot that Williams was next to him.
“I was thinking: ‘I cannot screw this up. It has to be perfect,’” he says.
To make the anxiety worse, Williams didn’t give Lecce-Chong any rehearsal tips. But the piece ended well.
“I think he realized what a massive fan I was,” he says.