Santa Rosa Symphony and Director Francesco Lecce-Chong plan four-year project for new music

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The Santa Rosa Symphony in collaboration with the Eugene Symphony in Oregon — both under the leadership of Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong — are embarking on an ambitious, four-year commissioning project with four, young American composers that represents the largest such project in the history of both orchestras.

The First Symphony Project will launch in the fall of 2019 during Lecce-Chong’s first full season as the conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony. Over the course of four years, each composer will have a short work performed in the fall by both orchestras, then return in the spring for the world premiere of their first-ever symphonic work.

“I believe we are in a Golden Age, and composers have found a music to reach their audience,” said the 31-year-old Lecce-Chong, who studied composing himself. “It’s not music from the 1970s or ’80s. It’s from the past five years. As an artist, I have to believe the best is yet to come.”

The project is being co-commissioned by both regional orchestras plus nine patron families. Fulfilling the goal of community engagement, composers will be embedded in the community during multiple residencies, presenting master classes for local colleges, speaking to youth orchestras and sharing the creative process with their local patrons.

“When people can put a face to the music, it becomes much less intimidating,” Lecce-Chong said. “The multiple residencies will allow us to not only celebrate these new creations but bring us closer to their creators.”

“It touches all the bases that we would hope for in a new commission,” said Alan Silow, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “It’s very community based, because Francesco wanted it to be commissioned by local patrons … and he’s one of the donors, which is rare and admirable.”

Lecce-Chong said he has been personally fundraising for the project for the past nine months. He also selected the four composers and recruited eight patron families — four in Santa Rosa and four in Eugene. Today, most new music commissions depend on nonprofit or government grants, but Lecce-Chong specifically wanted to seek out individuals.

“Francesco is almost harkening back hundreds of years ago when composition was a collaboration between composer and conductor and patron,” Silow said. “It’s introducing new music in a new model.”

Lecce-Chong selected two male and two female composers for the project — Matt Browne, based in New York City; Gabriella Smith, based in the San Francisco Bay Area; Puerto Rican-born Angélica Negron, based in Brooklyn, and Michael Djupstrom, based in Philadelphia. The conductor is acquainted with each composer and admires them for their openness to collaboration and feedback.

“They are just young people like me. They are doing innovative stuff, and they believe that music builds community,” Lecce-Chong said. “Basically, I want to treat these people like the rock stars that they are.”

Donors from Santa Rosa who are Emeritus Board members include Nancy and David Berto, Chuck and Ellen Wear and Creighton White, all of Santa Rosa. Current board member Gorden Blumenfeld is also a patron of the project.

“It’s a great idea to do this, and it aligns well with our overall goal of making this a first-class, regional orchestra,” said White, who has been involved with the symphony since 1996. “This will give these young composers a chance to bring a full symphony into the 21st century. Most commissions are not of that scope.”

Ellen Wear of Santa Rosa said she and her husband were honored to be asked to support the project, which she views as emblematic of a new day dawning for both the symphony and community.

“It’s such a unique concept that Francesco has created ... and it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” she said. “Symphonies aren’t commissioned very often, and these are all young composers. They are just ecstatic to have this opportunity.”

Next season, the Santa Rosa Symphony will welcome composer-in-residence Matt Browne for the first concert set in October, when the orchestra will play one of his smaller works. His commissioned symphony will receive its first world premiere in February 2020, then be repeated in Eugene at a later date.

With Lecce-Chong at the helm, donors said they did not have qualms about the success of the project.

“It’s an exciting project, and we have an exciting new music director to make sure it works,” White said. “He’s the kind that can make things happen.”

For his part, Lecce-Chong said he was thankful for all the support he has received so far.

“I never thought with orchestras of this size that you could do something like this,” he said. “I’m hoping to set a trend.”

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

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