Symphony names Lecce-Chong as new music director

After a two-year international search, the Santa Rosa Symphony has chosen the fifth music director of its 90-year history: 30-year-old Francesco Lecce-Chong, a trained conductor and pianist of Italian-Chinese descent, to succeed Bruno Ferrandis.

The youngest of the five finalists for the role, Lecce-Chong was born in San Francisco and raised in Boulder, Colorado. He was the first to audition with the symphony during the 2017-2018 season, but his time was cut short when his third concert on Oct. 9 was canceled because of the October wildfires.

Still, the talent displayed in the first two performances, his strong interpersonal skills, collaborative approach and interest in the community made him the top choice of the 10-member Music Director Search Committee, which unanimously recommended him to the Santa Rosa Symphony’s 38-member board of directors earlier this month. The board’s vote was also unanimous.

“About 30 board members voted, and it really is remarkable that the vote was unanimous,” said Jamei Haswell, chairman of the board and a search committee member. “He wowed us in so many different ways. He was absolutely spectacular on the podium, and he communicated well with our donors and audience alike.”

Alan Silow, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Symphony and a member of the search committee, said Lecce-Chong (pronounced Lech-ey Chong) was the top choice among both orchestra members and the community, who were surveyed for their feedback.

“He really is the whole package,” Silow said. “I feel like Francesco crosses every ‘T’ and dots every ‘I’ on all of those important components: outreach, education ... talent and exuberance on the podium, and also a real desire and commitment to this orchestra and to this community in particular.”

Lecce-Chong emerged as one of the front-runners from an initial field of 70 candidates, whittled down to 10 finalists by June 2016, and then five. The search committee, which first met in December 2015, included five symphony board members, four orchestra musicians and Silow.

Each finalist spent a little over a week in Santa Rosa this season, conducting rehearsals and three performances while meeting with community leaders, board members, staff and musicians.

“The candidates were all top notch,” Lecce-Chong said in a phone interview from Miami. “I’m still a little bit in shock ... I can’t tell you how excited I am, and more grateful than ever to have the chance of going back to Santa Rosa.”

Lecce-Chong plans to move to Sonoma County next summer, partly because his parents and extended family live in San Francisco and partly for professional reasons.

“I always want to have a residence with any orchestra I am music director of,” he said. “It’s a matter of principle for me.”

Lecce-Chong’s willingness to relocate to Sonoma County, although not a requirement, may have swung the pendulum in his favor.

“He offered some innovative new programs for music education and community outreach, and the fact that he wanted to live here was icing on the cake,” said Haswell, who lost her home in the October wildfires. “My gut was that Francesco, if he lived here, would be something that our symphony and community really needs, especially right now.”

Lecce-Chong’s three-year contract with the Santa Rosa Symphony begins July 1. He will only be able to conduct three concert sets in the 2018-2019 season because of previously scheduled guest conducting engagements. After next season, however, he will conduct six out of the seven concert sets, just like his predecessor Ferrandis, who was appointed in March 2006 to succeed Jeffrey Kahane.

“What will be important for me as a young conductor is that I will do three performances of each program,” Lecce-Chong said. “That’s how an orchestra and conductor grow together.”

Lecce-Chong’s star has been on the rise. In April, he was chosen as the music director of the Eugene Symphony in Eugene, Oregon. A few months later, he was picked up for representation by the international performing arts management firm IMG Artists.

Although rooted in the standard orchestral and operatic repertoire, Lecce-Chong studied composing as an undergraduate at New York’s Mannes School of Music and has a strong interest in new music. While serving as associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 2011 to 2015, he curated and presented two works commissioned by the orchestra as well as two U.S. premieres.

This season in Eugene, the multifaceted conductor has led early music works from the harpsichord twice, including a sold-out concert last month titled “The Four Seasons of the McKenzie River.” The multimedia, collaborative project featured projected photos of the McKenzie River taken by members of the community accompanied by a live performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

“I can’t take credit for (planning) it, but what I took away from it is doing community-based projects is incredibly powerful in the way they bring interest and community into the hall,” he said.

Lecce-Chong plans to complete his three-year post as associate conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this summer. A few weeks ago, he bid farewell to the Pittsburgh Symphony Youth Orchestra, where he has served as music director.

The conductor said he is looking forward to being based on the West Coast next season, dividing his time between Santa Rosa and Eugene instead of flying back and forth between coasts.

After spending a week in Santa Rosa last fall, Lecce-Chong was excited to learn about all the community outreach and the educational resources of the symphony, which has built a multitiered corps of youth orchestras.

“I’m looking forward to being able to contribute to that and inspire it,” he said.

He also was impressed with the intimacy of the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall at Sonoma State University, where the symphony serves as the resident orchestra.

“This was my first chance to perform in a hall of that size, seating 1,500,” he said. “I think that’s the sweet number ... where the audience is a part of what’s going on onstage in a physical way.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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