To speak with Francesco Lecce-Chong — the 27-year-old conductor from Colorado who will open the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra’s summer season on Thursday, July 17 — is to be struck by his exuberance for music.
The Boulder native is one of three finalists in the search for a music director to lead the BMF Orchestra. Each candidate will conduct two concerts in this summer’s five-week series. At the season’s end, one will be selected to take up where outgoing conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann left off.
If the community is excited to hear what Lecce-Chong can bring, he is just as excited to bring it.
“This is my first self-designed, lighter program,” he said of the opening night concert, which will include classics, pops and jazz favorites — basically a little bit of everything, organized around the theme of a summer night. He will open the concert with pieces by Copland, Mendelssohn, Handel and Mozart before using Gershwin to transition into the second half, when guest vocalist Helen Welch joins with her energetic and “comedic” take on Broadway and jazz standards.
Lecce-Chong began working on the idea to organize lighthearted fare around a single summer night last year while guest conducting with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He became interested in “what it means to be a world-class artist on the pops side of things” while working with the late conductor and composer Marvin Hamlisch at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, where he currently serves as associate conductor.
While many conductors organize their programs around a common theme, Lecce-Chong seeks to broaden the idea of what those thematic connections can be.
“Programs can be linked together in so many different ways,” he said. “I am particularly driven by programming that encourages audience members to make connections between diverse works.”
His second concert on Saturday, July 19, “Inspirations from Abroad,” is a good example, as his program is united around the ensemble itself.
“It’s rare in the United States to hear a professional chamber orchestra,” he said regarding the smaller size of the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra, which has 45 members. “The importance of the individual goes way up in a chamber orchestra. Their individual expressions matter a lot more because you can hear a lot more.” The July 19 program includes three pieces and “looks more like a standard classical concert,” Lecce-Chong said. The first is Haydn’s Symphony No. 39, an early piece he called “an incredible work that nobody will know,” created in the day when orchestras did not have a conductor. Lecce-Chong will put down the baton and join the orchestra on harpsichord for that piece. The second is a 20th-century work by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera in which almost every member of the orchestra has what amounts to a big solo.
“I thought that would be a great way to feature the orchestra itself and the musicians within it,” he said. Last is Felix Mendelssohn’s well-known “Scottish” symphony. The three pieces span three centuries, each in their own style, but are “all tied together by the transparency of texture, clarity and virtuosity that a chamber orchestra can bring,” he said.
“You want to play to the strengths of your orchestra,” Lecce-Chong added. “You need to make very careful choices because you want each piece to have a special character and come through the way it should sound with this size orchestra. It’s far less limiting than a lot of us take for granted.”
With the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra, he looks forward to exploring repertoire from the late 19th century into the 20th, when pieces were written for smaller orchestras.
“I think it is important these pieces get explored,” he said. “They are not played enough.”
“I really enjoy his thought processes,” said Marcia Kaufmann, executive director of the Breckenridge Music Festival. “He’s very good at what he’s putting on stage and how the audience can interact with it. That is really one of the strengths we were looking for in a new conductor.”
Both community involvement and communication are important to Lecce-Chong, who plans to reach out to the community year-round if he is selected to lead the annual summer festival. He has been blogging about music since college and currently maintains a blog with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at findingexhilaration.wordpress.com. Lately, he has been exploring conducting from memory, which he finds helps him to connect better with orchestras. He also has a great deal of experience conducting opera, which he adores.
Lecce-Chong made his first appearance in Breckenridge as a youth piano soloist with the National Repertory Orchestra, where he performed under the big tent prior to the construction of the Riverwalk Center. He was 16 years old the last time he conducted in Colorado, when he led the Boulder Youth Symphony in his own composition.
“For me, it’s really special because I’m going back home,” he said of the upcoming concerts. “I know I’m going to have lots of friends coming out for my concerts. It’s really fun to come full circle, to come home and have that kind of support.”
The young conductor has worked with many great music directors, teachers and musicians, among them Otto-Werner Mueller, Edo de Waart, Itzhak Perman, Ignat Solzhenitsy and Joyce Yang. No matter how famous and experienced they are, however, he’s always struck by their fresh approach to music.
“There is that quality every time, where we approach music for the first time, every time. With all these great musicians, it’s great to see that it never stops,” he said. “You can spend your whole life looking at this music, and it’s new every time.”
Erica Marciniec is a paid writer with the Breckenridge Music Festival.