Meet Francesco Lecce-Chong
Before I met Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Milwaukee Symphony’s new assistant conductor, I saw him seated next to music director Edo de Waart at a Frankly Music concert. They talked intently before the concert, through intermission and on their way out. That’s not the norm in this business; a maestro is just as likely to ignore a young assistant as to mentor him.
“I came here with no expectations,” Lecce-Chong said, over lunch Monday. “I thought if Edo hates me for some reason, it will still be great. I can still learn, just by watching and listening at rehearsal.”
Edo doesn’t hate him; on the contrary.
“He just defies my preconception of a conductor of stature,” Lecce-Chong said. “I was so taken aback that he would stay after rehearsal and talk to me. While he was preparing the Mahler First, we were in a constant dialog. Honestly, that piece confused me until that week. I could ask him anything. Before he left for Hong Kong, he sat down with me and went over all the scores I’ll be conducting while he’s gone. Having him here for me is the most important thing right now.”
Lecce-Chong, a Boulder, Colo., native, is just 24. He will lead the MSO at a special, one-night concert featuring pianist Joyce Yang at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 9) at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall and another program Nov. 18-20 at the Basilica of St. Josaphat. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the Mannes College of Music, in New York, and his advanced certificate from the Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia.
He kept smiling about his good fortune at landing in Milwaukee, where everyone seems to want to help.
“I’ve slipped into enough rehearsals with enough major orchestra that I’ve seen orchestras eat up conductors,” he said. “You say one wrong thing, and you can just feel the coldness just descend. And then you can’t say one right thing ever again. Coming here, before my first rehearsal, that was my worst nightmare.”
“I didn’t expect the orchestra to be like this,” he said. “The children’s concerts have been so much more than I expected. I feel as if we’re working together and the orchestra is on my side. They’re nice, and their work ethic is sensational. Most of my concerts we do with one rehearsal, and since it’s standard repertoire we could probably get away with no rehearsals. Or they could sleep through the rehearsal. But they don’t. They’re so attentive, down to every little detail. It doesn’t get any better than this for an assistant conductor.”
Lecce-Chong’s attitude has a lot to do with that. He’s no arrogant young hotshot on the make. He has no pretense. He’s here to learn and here to help.
He’s helping off the podium, too. De Waart splits his time among the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Milwaukee. He just isn’t the local public face of the MSO to the degree that Andreas Delfs, his predecessor, was. Lecce-Chong makes himself available in the lobby and fields questions from any patron who approaches him. He blogs for the MSO and turns up at official events. He doesn’t regard all this is a chore, and he shouldn’t. Rare indeed is the assistant conductor who can evolve into something of a celebrity in the local market. Lecce-Chong has a chance to do that.
But the music is the main thing, and I doubt that Lecce-Chong will let the rest of it distract him. It’s been his life since he was five and tinkering with the old upright piano in his parents’ house. He started piano lessons at 7. He took up the violin at 8. He showed aptitude for music and started practicing in every spare moment. His mother, an artist and art teacher, decided to home school him to better accommodate his practice schedule. As a strong violinist/violist in the Boulder Youth Symphony, he showed an interest in conducting and in composing. Paige Vickery, BYSO’s conductor, gave him lessons and a chance to conduct the middle-school orchestra.
“I loved it,” Lecce-Chong recalled. “I took to conducting. I just got up there and winged it and had a great time.”
He entered Mannes as a dual major in piano and composition. After freshman year, he decided to switch the emphasis to conducting. He had to audition to get into the program.
“Beethoven’s Eighth was my audition piece,” he said. He smiled as he went on. “I just flailed. But because of the energy and the passion, it turned out OK.”
The trick now is to harness that energy and passion with discipline, technique and finely tuned human engineering skills. Lecce-Chong knows how lucky he is to have an orchestra and a maestro who want to help him with that. The young conductor put it this way:
“I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.”
For tickets and further information about Lecce-Chongs upcoming concerts, visit the MSO website.