(Above: Francesco Lecce-Chong, as seen on the Eugene Symphony conductor and music director’s website at lecce-chong.com)

By Daniel Buckwalter

Francesco Lecce-Chong is living his dream. His professional ambition was always to be the artistic director and conductor of a symphony, and wouldn’t you know it, he grabbed those titles with first the Eugene Symphony Orchestra and then the Santa Rosa (California) Symphony in 2017 and 2018, respectively, both before he turned 30 years old.

For Lecce-Chong, it’s been an exhilarating ride. It’s also been an exhausting ride going back and forth between the symphonies, so one of those positions — at the Eugene Symphony — will draw to a formal close at the end of the 2023-24 subscription season, the end of a one-year contract extension that was announced in January 2023.

Lecce-Chong will become the “Artistic Partner” for the 2024-25 season, conducting three of the symphony’s subscription concerts, while the others will be led by candidates vying to be appointed his successor.

This is a move that has been in the works for awhile, Lecce-Chong tells Eugene Scene. “I told them I would stick around for as long as it took. I would miss either orchestra,” he says, adding that the decision-making process was hard, but the final decision was simple.

“Family became important during COVID.” That family — wife Chloe Tula, who is a nationally known harpist, as well as parents Curtis Chong and Catherine Lecce-Chong — all live in the Santa Rosa area in Sonoma County. Now was the time, he says, to make the professional move.

What Lecce-Chong will leave behind in Eugene is the painstaking preparation for symphony night (“For me, preparation is insane.”), as well as the vibrant bounce in his step and contagious goodwill, be it on the podium, with the symphony’s outreach programs to children, the Eugene Symphony Happy Hour at the 5th Street Public Market or, especially during the pandemic, the work he put in being the virtual face of the orchestra.

The Eugene Symphony Orchestra, like everyone, was caught flat-footed by the pandemic in March 2020. It had a trace of a Facebook presence early that year, but as Lecce-Chong noted to Eugene Scene in April 2020, “Even for me, this is all new.” He emphasized then that “We do all of this so we can share it. There’s no way we’re not going to share it.”

Eventually — in front of a bank of cameras instead of an in-person audience, with only string players onstage and everyone in masks at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall — Lecce-Chong and the symphony got through the 2020-21 season.

“I just can’t let things go,” he says now. “I never worked harder. It was relentless. It was a thrilling year in a sense. It was like running a start-up.”

The artistic side with the symphony has gone full-speed ahead since the pandemic restrictions were lifted, but attendance has been choppy, an industry-wide trend that perhaps is starting to ease, Lecce-Chong notes.

Locally, he believes, people got out of the habit of buying season tickets during the time — a full season-and-then-some — that the Eugene Symphony was not playing in front of a live audience. Aggressive marketing is the key, he says, as well as strong program development.

He cites the Louisville (Kentucky) Orchestra, with his good friend Teddy Abrams as its artistic director, as an example of an orchestra deeply committed to each of these foundations. “That’s the barometer,” Lecce-Chong says. “It’s where we should be.”

“Our hard-core fans are there,” he adds, but what he believes is missing at this moment because of the spotty attendance is a community bonding with its orchestra.

“Nothing is stronger than a friend inviting a friend to the symphony,” he says. “It’s like being a member of something. I hope we can continue these bonds. It’s going in the right direction, but it’s not a given. There’s going to have to be a real conversation at some point.”

For Lecce-Chong, this season, with the one-year contract extension, has been devoted to finishing up projects. That has included the third and final act of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and will also include the First Symphony Project (Michael Djupstrom’s Dreams of Flight) on Feb. 1. “It would have broken my heart if I didn’t work with them,” he says.

From there, Lecce-Chong will be on the podium on Feb. 22 (Colors of Resonance) and March 14 (Beethoven and Marsalis). His final turn at the podium as Artistic Director — and nothing says, “go out with a bang” quite like this — is May 23 when he leads the orchestra, the Eugene Symphony Chorus and sopranos Nina Warren and Ola Rafalo in Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

After that, and between stints as the Artistic Partner, Lecce-Chong will do what everyone else will do — wait for the symphony to name its new Artistic Director and Conductor. He remembers fondly the vetting process that led to his appointment in 2017, the interviews and the week with the orchestra.

He had barely heard of Eugene, Oregon, but he knew of the orchestra because of the great Marin Alsop’s turn as conductor in the 1990s. “It’s a very thorough process,” Lecce-Chong says. “The amount of time you get is relentless. I was loving every minute of it. It’s still one of the greatest weeks of my life.”

Editor’s Note: Francesco Lecce-Chong is the eighth music director of the Eugene Symphony, as follows:

Lawrence Maves, Founding Conductor (1966-1981)
William McGlaughlin (1981-1985)
Adrian Gnam (1985-1989)
Marin Alsop, Conductor Laureate (1989-1996)
Miguel Harth-Bedoya (1996-2002)
Giancarlo Guerrero (2002-2009)
Danail Rachev (2009-2017)
Francesco Lecce-Chong (2017-2024)


Above: Forging a bond between symphony and community has been one of Francesco Lecce-Chong’s primary goals as music director of Eugene Symphony. One of those activities has been giving well-attended pre-concert talks to audience members before each symphony concert.