Santa Rosa Symphony launches first full season under new maestro

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Unmasking the Stars

What: The Santa Rosa Symphony under Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong opens its 92nd season with guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5; 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6; and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7. Discovery rehearsal at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5. Concert Conversations with the conductor take place one hour before curtain,

Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park.

Tickets: $24 to $87. Discovery rehearsals: $20 adults, $10 youth

To reserve: 707-546-8742 or srsymphony.org

Francesco Lecce-Chong opened the season for the Eugene, Oregon, Symphony last week, then flew directly to Santa Rosa to start rehearsing for the opening concerts this weekend with the Santa Rosa Symphony.

The rising young conductor takes the fast pace in stride after spending a busy summer on the road. He made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony, opened the summer season of the San Diego Symphony and made his debut with the Xi’an Symphony in China. Not to mention conducting three summer concerts in Eugene and two in Santa Rosa.

“It’s amazing that this season worked out, because it’s always a jigsaw puzzle between the two orchestras,” Lecce-Chong said in a phone interview from Eugene. “It comes together in the course of a month — a period of time where I really dig in — so it’s a product of where I’m feeling musically at that moment.”

In April 2017, Lecce-Chong was chosen to lead the Eugene Symphony. In March 2018, he was named the fifth music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony in its 90-year history. This is his first full season in Santa Rosa and marks the first time Lecce-Chong has done all his own programming. His aim was to find “good music and a diversity of music.”

For diversity, he knew he wanted to include recently written music on every program to refresh the musicians’ and audiences’ idea of “new.”

“These are all pieces I feel strongly about,” he said.

“I don’t want to do new music that doesn’t communicate something, that’s either so wrapped up in itself or so foreign in its relevance that it has no meaning.”

Case in point: This weekend’s concerts at the Green Music Center open with “Masquerade,” a swirling, cinematic but brief work by English composer Anna Clyne. Commissioned by the BBC, the piece was inspired by the 18th-century, outdoor music and dance performances held at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London.

“It’s one of those beautiful, glorious pieces,” Lecce-Chong said.

“I was kind of shocked — it’s sort of become the token new music piece that’s being programmed around the orchestras this season.”

Providing a sneak peak of the February concert, when Matt Browne’s new symphony will get its world premiere as part of the First Symphony Project, Lecce-Chong will also introduce the young composer and his dynamic, 8-minute work, “How the Solar System Was Won.”

Browne will engage in the pre-concert talks with Lecce-Chong, so people can get to know him, before he returns in February for another week of residency.

“It makes a big difference when the audience has the flesh and blood of the composer right there,” Lecce-Chong said.

“Part of the success of the First Symphony Project is having the composer come out beforehand, so they can get to know the hall and the orchestra ... so when he comes out in the spring (February), there’s a connection.”

Beethoven’s No. 4

Representing the classics on the first concert program will be San Francisco pianist Garrick Ohlsson, performing a polished, gem of a piano concerto, Beethoven’s No. 4.

The conductor views such masterworks of the classical repertoire as a crucial part of his mission, since it allows the orchestra to work on ensemble together, then use that to build on in the future.

Unmasking the Stars

What: The Santa Rosa Symphony under Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong opens its 92nd season with guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5; 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6; and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7. Discovery rehearsal at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5. Concert Conversations with the conductor take place one hour before curtain,

Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park.

Tickets: $24 to $87. Discovery rehearsals: $20 adults, $10 youth

To reserve: 707-546-8742 or srsymphony.org

“The classics are something that is important, for all of us to get to know each other,” he said.

“Last year, I opened with the Beethoven 5th (symphony), which was very nice.”

This weekend, Lecce-Chong is really looking forward to the big showcase on the program, Richard Strauss’ tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra,” well known to millions as the opening piece on the soundtrack for the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Lecce-Chong plans to hit the tone poem hard, both in his own study of the score and in rehearsal.

“It’s a great way to dig in with an orchestra,” he said.

“It’s not the all-encompassing span of Mahler. With Strauss, it’s more particular ... how you play it, that raw technical virtuosity you have to have.”

‘Play out like a soloist’

One of the things that makes this particular piece a challenge, he said, is that Strauss wrote individual music for each music stand of the strings, so everyone must play out like a soloist.

“All of the Strauss tone poems are really difficult,” he said. “But this one is just terrifying.”

Another part of Lecce-Chong’s programming philosophy is to make sure all the masterworks stand out on their own.

Although he enjoyed conducting the “epic and awesome” Mozart and Mahler program last January, he felt the 70-minute Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 overshadowed Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, a revolutionary work that got short shrift in rehearsal time.

“This season, I think the masterworks are going to shine,” he said. “ ‘Zarasthustra’ will hold its weight and will really shine with the Beethoven concerto.”

In February, the conductor is looking forward to introducing a new, larger work by Browne, who will return for the world premiere of his 35-minute symphony, titled “The Course of Empire,” after a cycle of five paintings by Thomas Cole that inspired each of the symphony’s five movements.

“For me, this is a dream come true to have a chance to do something like this,” Lecce-Chong said. “It’s the riskiest thing, but it’s also the most important thing we can do. This is how the art progresses — through the larger statement.”

Almost by chance, the final concert of the symphony season in May will also feature a “massive world premiere” of a work commissioned for mariachi and orchestra.

“The project had stalled when they hired me,” he said.

“When they asked me if I wanted to do the project, I said, ‘I don’t want it to sound like a pops mariachi concert ... where the orchestra plays backup to the mariachi band, and it still sounds like mariachi music.”

So Lecce-Chong was thrilled when he first spoke with Mexican composer Enrique Chapala, who understood that the project would require both ensembles to explore new textures and new ways to interact with each other. For the new work, Chapala has chosen the theme of the bracero program, which brought millions of guest workers to the U.S. from 1942 to 1964.

“It (the theme) works so well for what I hope this piece can do,” Lecce-Chong said.

“This is a piece that has a chance to change the way we think about everything — how we relate to others, how we think about cross-cultural relationships.”

Meanwhile, the conductor will get a chance to flex his cinematic muscles at 3 p.m. Oct. 27 when he conducts “Halloween with Harry Potter” as part of the symphony’s three-concert Family Concert Series. The concert will include pieces from two “Harry Potter” movies, “Beauty and the Beast” and others.

“I’ve taken the entire series under my umbrella of things that I want to pass by me,” he said. “I feel so strongly about it, and I think this season is really strong for us ... ‘Harry Potter,’ great. ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ great. ‘Beethoven (Lives Upstairs),’ great. All the heavy hitters, all in one season.”

Light-hearted spirit

Like Leonard Bernstein, who led the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts, Lecce-Chong plans to keep the musical quality high for the kids while still providing a fun and light-hearted spirit.

“Let them hear the best that we can do,” he said. “Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ ballet is the kind of story that could have come out of Harry Potter.

“Normally you don’t have a chance to hear 25 minutes of Stravinsky, but at this concert, they will hear an entire masterpiece. The orchestra is going to help me narrate the story, so the kids get to meet the individual instruments that represent the prince, the bird and the evil creature.”

That same philosophy will be in play when Lecce-Chong guest conducts a family concert with the New York Philharmonic in early November, focusing on new American composers as well as Ives, Copland and Bernstein.

“This will be my debut there,” he said. “So I get to follow in the footsteps of Bernstein.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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