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Master Class
The symphony’s young associate conductor is making waves by keeping an eye on the future.

Photo by Kat Schleicher

Now in his third year with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Francesco Lecce-Chong is familiar to Milwaukee music fans – as a conductor, music enthusiast and speaker. But he vividly recalls his first visit to Uihlein Hall.

“I was a nervous wreck,” Lecce-Chong says of his 2010 tryout to become MSO’s assistant conductor. “It was my first audition, and I was just flipping out the couple of days I was here.

“Like any young conductor, my biggest fear was what I would say when the orchestra stopped playing,” he continues. “These people have played this piece longer than I’ve been alive. What could I say that wouldn’t sound incredibly stupid or completely arrogant? I had no answer for this. But I heard the voice of my conducting teacher behind me saying, ‘It’s about the music. What’s in the score?’

“So I calmed down. My mind went clear. It isn’t about me. It’s about the music.”

It worked. A calm and methodical 23-year-old led MSO through rehearsal. And he got the job.

This month, Milwaukee audiences have the chance to get to know Lecce-Chong even better – as student and mentor, conductor and pianist. As conductor, he’ll lead the orchestra in another of his innovative programs – now dubbed the MSO’s “Chamber Series.” He’ll also conduct a half-dozen new works as part of the orchestra’s first Composer Institute, an initiative that saw 70 young composers from around the country submit entries. Later, he’ll play a joint piano recital with Pavlina Dokovska, a former teacher who, he says, “made a huge difference in my musical life.”

While Lecce-Chong is quick to credit influential teachers, he would not be where he is – at an age when most aspiring conductors are just beginning their specialized study – without his own strong sense of purpose.

“I realized very early on that I wanted to conduct,” he says while sipping Starbucks at the MSO offices. “Which is sort of a problem when you’re 16.”

That specificity can be a problem because few conservatories will take you seriously at that age. Rather, they’ll respond to inquiries with a “not so fast” and point you toward programs in performance or composition.

Still, Lecce-Chong was undeterred. With a childhood saturated in music, including piano, violin, clarinet, composing and even some conducting, he found the two schools that offered conducting to undergraduates – Mannes College The New School of Music in New York, and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He was accepted to Mannes, where he studied piano with Dokovska. Testing into advanced classes allowed him to try for the conducting track at the end of his freshman year. The first hurdle: a six-hour written exam.

“I thought, ‘Hey, this is great,’” he says. “‘Even if I fail miserably, I’ll be more prepared when I take it again in a couple of years.’” He not only made it through that test, but his conducting experience helped him pass subsequent tests, and he was accepted into the program as a sophomore.

After Mannes, he attended Curtis for graduate work with legendary conducting teacher Otto-Werner Mueller, who would become a profound influence on the young conductor.

“He had a reputation of being a terrifying teacher,” Lecce-Chong says. “But he never raised his voice to me if it wasn’t to speak for the composer: ‘Why didn’t you follow what Beethoven wrote? Did you think you did something better?’”

It was Mueller’s voice he heard during that MSO audition, and the instructor’s lessons still steer Lecce-Chong’s approach to conducting and to music. (It’s not surprising that his next mentor would be MSO Music Director Edo de Waart, who has a similar reputation as a conductor who honors the composer.)

As Lecce-Chong settles into his third year, now as associate conductor, he readily admits he’s still learning. His duties include conducting and programming (with the help of MSO’s director of artistic planning, Isaac Thompson) 40-50 concerts a season – including pops and children’s concerts, but also more “serious” events like subscription concerts, the Chamber Series and his work with the Composer Institute. And he is, in a word, an “understudy” for de Waart and every guest conductor in MSO’s season lineup. “I study a lot of scores,” Lecce-Chong says. “I had to buy a new bookshelf to hold them all.”

With eyes on a music directorship in the future, Lecce-Chong also spends time thinking about the challenges that American orchestras face in the 21st century: how to maintain and build audiences while still upholding the integrity of the music. That debate continues, but Lecce-Chong thinks one problem is that people want to like everything.

“If there was one thing I could change,” he says, “it’s when people hear music that makes them angry, they’d want to go back and hear it again. Why not? When things piss us off, it’s exciting. ‘Did you hear that? That was terrible! I can’t believe someone would write that. Let’s go hear it tomorrow!’” 

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