The Muse in Music - Francesco Lecce-Chong Asks Why Continue if the Best Has Already Been Written?
By, Dan Perttu
For this post on my “Muse in Music” Blog, I am super excited to be interviewing Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Music Director of the Eugene Symphony (Oregon) and the Santa Rosa Symphony (California). Francesco loves to work with living composers, and has created fresh, exciting programs for both of the orchestras that he conducts, frequently featuring living composers from all backgrounds. Francesco has appeared with orchestras around the world including the San Francisco Symphony, National Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Toronto Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, and Hong Kong Philharmonic, and has collaborated with top soloists including Renée Fleming and Itzhak Perlman. In this blog conversation, he and I start with a discussion about what is inspiring to him about working with living composers. The conversation leads into other topics as well, including what Francesco believes makes “great” music great. Francesco has wonderful insights on these and other topics; I hope you enjoy reading our talk.
Dan: What's inspiring to you about working with living composers? Usually with these issues, there is some kind of emotional impetus, not just an intellectual reason, so that's why I'm always interested about the inspiration, so to speak. I know it makes intellectual sense to do it but, is there an inspirational reason for it?
Francesco: I think a lot of it is based around the fact that I was actually a pretty serious composer for my undergraduate degree. I started at the Mannes College of Music, and I was actually a piano and composition double major. I actually thought I was going to be a composer; I probably started when I was around ten. I even had a couple of orchestra pieces performed, and I was always writing music. I honestly thought that would be my field. After my first year of undergrad I ended up switching to piano and conducting as my double major, and it was hard to give up composition. The only reason I did is because they told me I couldn’t triple major. So I had to choose, and I thought the composition was the one thing I could do on the side, and I did; I continued to take lessons with my teacher. It was Robert Cuckson at Mannes. I continued to work with him, continued to compose, and actually the last thing I was working on was an opera. I really thought it would be a part of my life, and there were a couple of things that happened, but I think the major issue was just growing up as a musician and widening my horizons on what was out there because I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. A lot of innovative things were going on in Colorado, but I wasn't really a part of that. I lived a pretty musically sheltered life, and did not encounter a lot of new music; therefore, I wasn't familiar with a lot of it. When I went to New York, it was this influx of new information and musical experiences I'd never had before, and my horizons broadened. I also became very self-critical of my work as a composer, which I've come to believe is the main reason why I have not composed in maybe eight to ten years. The funny thing is – maybe twice a year, I think, oh, maybe I wrote something that was good. I have this stack of drafts in my closet. It's like a giant box. So every couple of years, I'll go into that box and think, I'm sure something here was worthy of me taking up composition again, but then I realize that it's not. The reason is, I think, as I started conducting more, and as I went into my serious conducting studies, I think part of being a great conductor is understanding what makes great music. It's not just analyzing, it's not just theory, but you truly begin to understand, why was Mozart more important than Salieri? Why were the composers that were important – why did they do better than the composers that were actually popular in their time? And, you start developing this kind of innate sense of what being a “genius” composer means. And I think the more I studied it, the more I got into my own head. I'm sure you understand the worst thing you could do when you compose is to analyze what you've written as you're writing it. It has to be natural. And the true nail in the coffin for me as a composer is that I would write one measure, and then I would already start analyzing it; I just could not get out of that frame of reference. But I think at the same time, a lot of my friends were composers, and so it was kind of like these two things came to a head because not only did I realize that I wasn't writing music that I thought was worthy of being performed, but I also came to recognize which of my colleagues were really special. So, we kind of flipped around to where I was thinking: as a conductor, I can promote and encourage and support the new music that is as good as all the music that I am constantly studying.
So, and that was that and once I realized that, once I started working with composers seriously, it really took off after that. The composition aspect has always fascinated me, and I think I work well with composers because I understand the process of what they need and how all that works. And I think because of that I’m also exceptionally picky. I could be a tough conductor to work with, for sure. I mean my fondest memories were when I went to Curtis for my grad work. They pair conductors with composers each year, and one composer I was paired with was Gabriella Smith. Next season I'm doing the premiere of her symphony. She’s a great composer, and I remember we talked a lot. I had been paired with some other composers too. When working with composers, I'm going to ask for things to be clear; I'm going to suggest all sorts of things that I think will help me on a conducting level, will speed up rehearsal time, and will solve balance issues. So, let's have a dialogue about your piece, how you want your piece to sound, and let's make sure that we are on the same page as to how that's going to happen. A lot of composers just walk away from that because they don't want someone messing with that. But Gabriella and I hit it off right away; she was incredible. We've always had great interactions, and it was amazing to me, as much as I fell in love with her music, watching her kind of rise in the composition world has been one of the most satisfying things for me, and so you know these little experiences have made me really passionate about new music. Luckily I'm in a position as a music director to influence a whole community. We're not a traveling string quartet. We're not a soloist. We actually shape, an entire community’s idea of what new music is. And I think that's one of the most powerful and the best parts of my job. It really is that you get to curate the tastes of your community.
Dan: I have to ask you about the innate sense of genius and what makes great music great. I'm sure a lot of people who read the blog will be curious. So what makes great music great in your opinion?
Francesco: I should have prepared for this question. The prerequisite should be that it's subjective. There are some exceptions to this, but I feel like at its core, the technical genius behind the music is felt, not heard. For example, I was giving a talk to an audience about how Brahms’s music is so special to me. In his Second symphony, the first three notes of the piece, that little oscillation of a half step, in the bass line, is going to be the basis for the entire first twenty minutes. It’s an exploration of how that interval can encompass the whole world. And you see it as it starts at the beginning, and then of course it’s at the climax of the development section where the trombones have it clashed on top of each other. Then, you see it in its culmination in the final horn cadenza. As the Second expands, it gets larger and larger, and you realize that this one little interval can encompass the entire scope of the piece. And I said, “Okay, that's the technical part, but here's the thing. An audience member isn't going to know that when they're listening to the piece, but that story that I just pulled from that little note, becoming something that's intensely violent and ugly, to becoming something that's gorgeous, to becoming something that's universal, you feel it.” And that's what's remarkable about Brahms for me is that on a construction level, it is perfect; on a technical, philosophical, psychological level, it's perfect. But at the end of the day, it communicates; it is a piece of art that affects us on an emotional level. I can't even imagine having to think about that as a composer, and he probably didn’t; it was probably natural, but I suppose that's the genius is that he hits it on every level, and that the story that he's trying to tell technically is the story that we actually feel in the end. I think that's kind of my journey with new music, this trying to find new works of art that share that idea that we don't need to hear the map of your piece, we don't need to know what your fancy little technical devices are. If you put electronic music in your piece, which I am totally fine with, but it better make sense, there better be a real reason. I think that's where I fall along those lines. Obviously there probably are some exceptions that I'm not thinking of right now, but even when I think of the Second Viennese School, which was the most technically crazy school, but if you think about it, Schoenberg couldn't even follow his own rules, and I think that's a really good example of his musical genius. It didn't even allow him to follow his own rules that he came up with, because at the end of the day, he was trying to communicate something strongly. If I see a piece of music that is entirely founded on a set of core principles and it follows them exactly, I'm not going to like that piece of music.
Dan: There's also something about being able to take musical material (and you were talking about this with the Brahms to a point) and narrative musical material and then transform it across a large scale form in a way that it has a much different emotional quality later in the piece. It's still the same motive through which the composer sets up an emotional expectation early on and then makes a transformation, over time, or having the course of an emotional narrative through the music. Over time, then, what started in a mood that might have been sunny and happier, and then, is genuinely and authentically developed into something that is terrifying, or whatever the composer wants, whatever emotion that is. I think there are a lot of composers who do that well, but for me, a composer who does that extraordinarily well is Mahler. For me, the genius of Mahler is the large scale transformation of musical material and emotional material because of it. But again, the composer’s technique has to be amazing, but it has to be supporting the inspiration because, you know, no one's going to want to listen only to the math of music, and, as you said, Schoenberg had to break his own rules. There's a Navajo custom about deliberately weaving an imperfection into a rug to allow the Spirit to pass in and out. Are you aware of that?
Francesco: It's so true. I think that's where the composers that we don't play anymore have fallen on one side or the other side. Either their music was all just about pure emotion and trying to communicate something, but there was no technique underpinning it, or composers on the other side, it was too perfect; every phrase was four bars. If you go back to the people that Mozart beat out, there'll be six composers more perfect than Mozart. Every phrase is four bars; every modulation is perfectly done.
Dan: Yeah, I would hazard to say even a fair amount of early Mozart’s music (the 25th and 29th Symphonies excepted) can be rather formulaic. But then you get into the piano concertos or the late symphonies and it's . . .
Francesco: Yeah, he does some ridiculous things, and I think he gets a little bit too much credit for everything always being perfect, because it isn't. I suppose it's perfect in its, I don't know what, its rule breaking?
Dan: I know you're also a pianist so you know the C-minor Fantasia. That thing is so wonky, but I love it. And in terms of rules and stuff, yes, he's following most of the conventions, and it makes theoretical sense to a point, but it doesn't even have a key signature. And, then everything he goes through it, it's so experimental and interesting, and I remember loving that.
Anyway, before I get too off topic, you also talked about why you like programming the music of living composers because it helps you to influence the taste of the community, so to speak. Was there anything else you wanted to share about the “why” of your interest in new music?
Francesco: I mean it's kind of harsh, but I just don't see how you could be a conductor and not be a proponent of new music. I mean, there hasn't been a well-known conductor in history who wasn't a proponent of new music. Part of the reason is, how can you be in this field if you believe the best has already happened. In the history of humankind, orchestral music has only been around for three-hundred years at most and not even really in its present form. So orchestral music is a blip in history; even in human history it's a blip. In Western culture, we've only begun, in my opinion, to realize the capacity of the orchestra. It's such a short period of time. So, I just I can't imagine doing what I would do if I thought that we could never do better, better than Beethoven. Have we found something that's better than Beethoven? No, but that doesn't matter. I mean, people thought Mahler wasn't great when he was writing his symphonies, and people thought it was atrocious, and it's only later that we realized the genius behind those pieces. I'm sure there's a lot that I'm conducting now that'll never be done again, but there might be a couple of things in there that actually have a chance to influence the music world at large, and all I can do is pick the things that speak to me. Luckily, I have the capacity to communicate, to present these works in ways that our audience can appreciate, and I'm very grateful that some natural skill was given to me over the years, where I can get people excited about new music by basically saying what I just said to you. That is, what is the point of doing what we're doing if there's nothing good that's ever going to happen again? Then I would want to work in a new field; I would go into a field where I knew there was something to look forward to. That if we've already heard the full capacity of what an orchestra could do, then I just don't know how one could be inspired.
Dan: Now those are some inspiring perspectives! That actually also leads really well into the third question, which is about your projects with living composers and what they actually entail. You're doing the first symphony idea, right? You're actually programming new symphonies by composers, and as a composer myself, I thought, “I'm never going to have the opportunity to write a symphony.” I mean, it’s just in this climate nowadays; I'll be lucky if I write concertos because conductors are so hesitant to program new symphonies. And then now here's a music director who's actually programming symphonies by living composers, besides Robert Spano who has cultivated that, but it's still not common besides maybe you, Spano, and a few others. Can you talk about that?
Francesco: So, the caveat for me is that I'm learning. I've been a music director now for two and a half years, that's it. My first season was in Eugene. I've been in Santa Rosa for one and a half seasons and Eugene for two and a half. I started in Eugene one year before Santa Rosa, but my first season in Eugene was already programmed. So, I have only programmed and conducted one full season in my programming. So, these are really early days for me, and every single time I conduct a concert with my orchestras, I've learned more about how I want to program, how to present new music, how to work with composers better, and how to get my orchestra to understand new music faster. So, I think the caveat is that I see myself at the very beginning of learning how to do this well. And that's part of why I'm intense about doing it is because I think you learn by doing. If you do one commission every five years, you're never going to get that right, but you know I want to excel at this, because of all the other things we talked about. When I was an assistant conductor with the Milwaukee Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony, I was obviously aware of what orchestras were doing all over the country. And, you know, when you're an assistant conductor, all you do is watch and learn, basically. I guess a couple of things struck me: first, the lack of taking new music seriously. People ask, why don't orchestras just do more new music, or why don't audiences like new music? I apologize because it's our fault. It's the orchestra world's fault; we have trained our audiences not to take new music seriously by how we programmed it—not by not doing it. In fact, it would be better if the orchestras that didn't take new music seriously simply didn't do it.
Dan: That’s a wonderful soundbite!
Francesco: I have a lot of time to think about these things when I was just sitting in the audience for years. Anyway, when you program a piece of new music, then a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, and then a Brahms symphony, you’ve basically told your audience “Oh, don't worry about this; it's not great art.” And, you do this repeatedly, to the point that if you ever try to program a larger work the audience is going to say, “what is this; how do we grapple with this; we have no idea what this is.”
We have, over decades, I think, trained and trained our audiences not to take new music seriously, with the idea being that, if you don't like it, you can ignore it, and if you did like it, you'll forget it. That's kind of what it comes down to. We have no chance to move our art form forward if we are only doing eight minute pieces, and I think honestly that's why chamber music has really flourished in the past fifty years because composers can write fuller works for string quartets, but orchestras don't want to risk it. This has really been a process for me. I knew the idea that I wanted, if I ever commissioned works. Right now I'm working on six commissions over the next three years, and every single one of them is going to be longer than twenty minutes; every single one of them is a big concerto or big symphony, and in my lifetime I don't plan on ever commissioning anything less than that because I don't want to. I know there's a gazillion great ten minute pieces out there, and I'll let other orchestras commission those pieces. I'm going to be the one that goes all in.
So here's what I've learned through this process. This is a four-year project that I put in place, we're now just finishing year one. I did the premiere of Matt Browne's first Symphony this past year in Santa Rosa and then we have three more years to go. Having gone through this process once, the only reason I can see that a conductor wouldn’t do this project is because of fear. That’s my challenge to all my colleagues out there. Although it was expensive, this project was remarkably easy to fundraise for. I have four households in Eugene, and I have four households in Santa Rosa, and myself, and all of us are nine equal partners for four years and commissioning all four symphonies. They were the first people I asked; no one turned me down; and in fact what I have now is donors who are upset they weren't asked. So now I'm cultivating the next set of donors so when I want to do my next commissioning project, I can go to the people who felt left out of it this past time, and say, “Alright, here's your chance to join in the next project.” We did not have to apply for a single grant or any government funding. I wanted to prove that this entire project could be done by the people who care about the orchestra. So that was the first part. Fundraising is not an excuse.
What else do people say? First, it's always a money thing. Second is audience. Will audiences come to hear a new piece? Santa Rosa had an incredible week. People flocked in, and were genuinely excited, because we really marketed this as something special: be a part of our orchestra’s history in commissioning this major work. Furthermore, every one of these composers is doing a double residency in their year. Matt Browne was actually out in the fall, and we played an eight minute piece of his, one that I knew would get the audience excited. The audience got to meet him, and they loved him. They were already excited about him, so when we finally got to the symphony, I had built up this massive support behind this piece, and you could feel the excitement in the room. Before the piece I didn’t have to explain much because Matt’s music is so evocative, so I said, “Thank you for being here tonight. This moment right now is the most important journey that an audience and an orchestra can take together. It has been the most important journey that audiences and orchestras have taken together for about three hundred years, and now we're a part of that history.” Obviously, it wasn't my presentation; it was the music. After forty minutes and five movements, the audience was in rapt attention, and they went nuts afterwards with a massive standing ovation. There's something really special about that, and it wasn't just for his symphony, it was for our musicians as well. In an eight minute piece, an audience doesn't realize how hard they work, but in a forty minute piece they can see how hard these musicians were working. When I was giving solo bows, every section of the orchestra got a massive cheer, and the audience really felt like they were willing this piece into existence; it's palpably a unique and different feeling. Therefore, fundraising, marketing, and the in-concert experience aren’t a problem. I'm sure someone could challenge me on this, but as far as I can tell, it comes down to a music director’s ego. What is a conductor willing to give up in a season to make space for a substantial new piece?
I understand the problem because I have that ego too; I would love to do a Mahler cycle! I want to do massive projects. At some point I want to do an Alpine symphony. I want to do Bluebeard's Castle in concert. I want to do these massive projects, and I'm getting to do some of that. I have nine subscription weeks in Eugene, and I have seven in Santa Rosa, and when you're putting together a season that's not that long, you're giving up a lot if you program new music in a serious way. When I give up a half of a concert to premiere a new work, I don't know if it will even be a good piece. Yeah, that's a huge risk, and especially as a young conductor I wonder, am I really going to make my mark on that? Probably not; the best I can hope for is that it's a good piece. No one's going to say, “Francesco’s conducting of Matt Browne’s first Symphony was revelatory.”. The reviews were ecstatic; they thought the music was incredible; but no one said a word about me. Right now I'm planning my 2021 22 season, and our composer in residence is going to be Angélica Négron. I’m really excited to get her on board, because recently the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that they commissioned her. When I jumped on that bandwagon two years ago, I had no idea that was going to be in the works. I programmed my season with a lot of note cards where I can shuffle pieces around, and then I start developing how my season’s going to work. Right now in both orchestras, an entire half of one of my concerts, which is good percentage of my entire season, is being taken up with a symphony by Angélica Négron. When you do that, it severely limits what's on the other half of your concert, because you don't know how the symphony ends, so you’re going to put it on the first half because you don’t know what it’s ending will be like. The second half of that concert has to be a concerto that is popular enough to draw in an audience that wouldn't have come for a piece that they don't know. That is incredibly limiting, so this year, we did Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in Santa Rosa, and we're doing Rachmaninoff’s Second in Eugene, and that’s getting people in the door. In future seasons, I'm planning on putting something like Carmina Burana with a new symphony, but there is a limited group of pieces that will work in this capacity. Essentially, I've lost an entire program to this concept. All of the big orchestral pieces that I want to show off with my orchestra can't happen on that program, since it is purely about this new symphony, and getting as many people to hear it as possible. A part of me thinks, damn, I really wanted that program to do other things. That's been the only challenge. It hasn't been the things that we pretend are the challenges. It's the things that we don't want to admit are the challenges: music directors might not want to give up a program.
Another problem is that it was a lot of work. Working with Matt Browne’s symphony resulted in the most stressful conducting week I think I've ever had. With a forty minute piece, we made over one hundred changes in the course of about seventy two hours. You can do that because this was the major piece of the program. We had two rehearsals devoted exclusively to this new symphony, which is five hours of rehearsal time. In those rehearsals we're able to adjust these issues in real time. We're making changes; we're making sure that this piece is a living, breathing thing that we are editing, literally as we go.
Dan: What kind of adjustments? Fixing balance issues?
Francesco: A lot of balance stuff. It depends on each composer, and I love working with Matt Browne because he totally knows that if he's going to err, it's going to be on the side of orchestrating too heavily, and he’s very quick to make changes to clear up orchestral textures. Also, we did the end of one of the movements differently every rehearsal and every concert as well, and it was actually quite frustrating. It's called The Course of the Empire, and it's based on these five paintings about the rise and fall of an empire. The fourth movement has been this really violent movement as the invading force tears apart the Empire. But at the very end, it just comes to this dead standstill, and the last movement is very plaintive. It depicts the ruins of the empire. I think a lesser composer would have done something like this: this violent music comes to a dead standstill, and then there's this chord, hanging in the strings. I think that's a little gimmicky. However, when Matt did this, I love it because the chord holds, but inside the chord, a string player, at a specified moment begins to overpressure, and so the chord goes to scratch, only one player at a time. You hear this chord, then you hear this crunch in the string section, and then you hear another crunch, and then another crunch. It's really one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard. But the problem was the pacing of it. At first we wondered, should we have everyone crunch whenever they want to, but of course orchestra mentality is that everyone will do it at the same time. Since I wanted to spread out these moments I tried doing it by stand, and then I tried doing it by player. I tried all these different things and next time, I'll probably do it a different way as well. I love something like that because it's a musical problem we're trying to figure out – emotionally – how much time do we need between the final smash of the orchestra, and this gorgeous viola solo that's going to start up the last movement? It's a great problem to have.
Dan: And that particular issue was an issue of combining orchestration, acoustics, and form all into one problem that is hard to sort out in the imagination alone.
Francesco: Yes, and actually this is what I love about Matt, we had a two hour talk when he gave me his first draft of the symphony. He knows how I work with composers. The first thing I say is that I think it's an incredible piece that you've given me. I already believe in it really strongly, and you have lived with this piece for a year; I lived with this piece for 24 hours. Then I say, with all of that as a caveat, and I'm not going to ask you to change anything, here's what I really think. I go movement by movement and ask questions and make comments. I may say, “I really like what you wrote here, so why doesn't it come back?” Or, “I don’t really understand this movement; I don't know what you're trying to do here.” I will ask everything that comes to mind, because some things he doesn't even realize. For example, there was this one really beautiful interval that happens in the first movement and I asked, “why doesn’t that come back?” So, there are things that I hear that I can help him see what stands out to someone else. The interesting thing was knowing the end of the fourth movement was going to be a problem right away; basically, it might not work. But we talked about it, and decided to leave it. It was adjusted on the fly, and It was fun to work out that problem.
Dan: That level of commitment, interest, and energy on the part of the conductor and music director is really unusual too. A lot of conductors or music directors may not have your compositional mind, considering you have the composition background, but also may not have the interest or the patience to fuss with adjusting the music of a living composer. As you said, it's a lot of work; it's a lot of trial and error and unknowns; but in a sense, what that effort culminated in was a really dynamic and amazing result. But as you say, I think that's unusual. I don't know if all music directors would do that.
Francesco: Well, we don't know until they start doing it. So, yeah I love the process, but I have to say it was not an easy week for me. Every night, rehearsal would end at 10 PM. I was up another hour or two having to collate notes. You also have to manage your orchestra really carefully. And I have to say, I was so proud of how the musicians handled it in Santa Rosa. A lot of them wrote to me before the week and said here's the list of things I'm worried I won't be able to do well. So, I could send those things to Matt, and say hey, do we have a workaround for this? For example, even something as simple as a clarinet part: if these six bars were played on E-flat clarinet instead of A clarinet, it would be ten times easier. The musicians really were proactive in getting this information to Matt and me so that we could make a lot of changes, before the rehearsal, but also during it. You just have to manage it. It can get frustrating for the musicians dealing with something brand new, and you have to be ready to negotiate between the them and the composer.
I guess that's the final challenge to presenting a large new orchestral work: the amount of effort required and the risk that you take with your audience and your musicians in a project like this.
Dan: So that's interesting. That also probably enabled Matt, if he knew this going in to the project, to take more risks. Was he able to take more risks at the outset? I know when I'm writing a piece, there's going to be limited rehearsal time. I'm deliberately not taking some risks sometimes, because I'm afraid that it's just not going to come off well on limited rehearsal time, and I basically have everything riding on my premieres. So if I'm having a good experience with the music director and good experience with the orchestra, I'm going to be erring on the side of caution, but still trying to accomplish my artistic goals, so that I don't end up in a situation where they hate me because it's just too hard or it's unsuccessful with the audience. So, what you're doing with your situation is you're enabling an added dimension there. Have you thought of it like that?
Francesco: Yeah, I never really I thought about asking Matt if he felt more relaxed and able to take risks during the compositional process because of how we work together.
Dan: Well, thanks for explaining how your collaboration with Matt worked. It was wonderful to get behind the scenes on your projects. Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Francesco: I'm so grateful in many ways to talk about these issues because I want to write about this process, and I just don’t have time. I want to have a blog where I can openly challenge my colleagues to take this on. So you're giving me a little bit of that voice. Thank you!
Dan: Thanks, Francesco! Your work is inspiring!