The Florida Orchestra returns this weekend, with music director Michael Francis leading a concert cleverly titled Opening Night.
Hired on in 2014, Francis is the creative engine of TFO; the native Londoner, a double-bassist-turned conductor, is credited for helping turn the organization’s once-sagging fortunes around through innovative and challenging programming, increased community outreach and, frankly, his considerable personal charm and onstage charisma.
The season opener, tonight at the Straz Center, Saturday evening at the Mahaffey Theater, and Sunday afternoon at Ruth Eckerd Hall, will include Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Ravel’s Bolero, Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, Mason Bates’ Mothership and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3.
Guest soloist is pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilan. Tickets are here.
During a break in rehearsals Thursday afternoon at the Straz, the 43-year-old Francis took a few minutes to talk about Opening Night – and other pressing matters.
After time away from this group of musicians, is there a warming-up period? An “I hope you enjoyed your summer, let’s see if you’ve kept your chops up” moment?
No, we go straight in. Because of the way it works – time is money, and we have tight rehearsal time – they know me well enough now. Now they’re used to it, now they want it, now there’s no problem. So we’re straightaway picking up where we left off last season. Which is a great feeling, ‘cause it means we can build this year. I don’t hold back – I expect them to be at the same level they were when we finished at the end of May. And they’re ready, they’ve worked at it – so I get the “A” orchestra straightaway.
After five seasons, is it abject respect and love, or are they afraid of you a little bit?
I suppose it’s the same as all teachers. I mean, the word maestro does mean teacher. I wouldn’t say I’m a teacher, but I think there’s a mixture of everything. I hope that there’s respect; that’s what you want for. Respect is much more important than being loved and liked, for example. But I think we have a good rapport, they understand me, they know that if it’s not the right standard I will jump on it straightaway, and work them. I believe they feel the results of that, so they’re happy to be worked in this way. I hope not fear – but of course you can’t stop that stuff sometimes happening! But that isn’t my intention. I don’t like to operate in a culture of fear; I do like to operate in a culture of excellence.
What I really insist on in these rehearsals is getting to a certain point where I’m extremely demanding, then they know “Ah – that’s what it can be.” And that becomes the new norm. And then we build from it. So what you’re doing as a conductor is you’re re-setting their autopilot. You keep building. That’s how you climb up the mountain.
The great thing about this orchestra is not only are they very gifted and very talented, they’ve a tremendous desire to be the very best. They know that they are the State Orchestra of the third biggest state in the country.
How about a very British question – what did you do on your summer holiday?
When I did have some time off, I was very British. I played a spot of cricket. And I also got to play some nice links golf on the south coast. And, of course, I spent some time with my wife and daughter – we were in the U.K. Took my mother to the Ritz, so I was a real British cliché.
Tell me about this weekend’s concert, Opening Night.
It’s a concert you can only play in Tampa Bay. It doesn’t work anywhere else, and I designed it as such. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to make a musical reflection of what I believe Tampa Bay is. Of course, drawing attention to our very rich Cuban heritage – Ybor City, both waves of the immigration that came through – this really rich, wonderful Cuban environment has so perfumed our community in the right way.
Then we have a very European piece. We think of course of European immigration into Tampa Bay as well.
This is being performed by a wonderful Cuban pianist who has a great capacity with jazz as well. With his last Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, the house nearly fell down with the applause. So if they keep applauding him, I’m sure he has another brilliant encore.
The second half, we start with Beethoven. I chose this piece because it’s the universal one. The idea of Beethoven searching for love, first of all. With the Mason Bates Mothership, it’s a question of “Who’s the modern Beethoven?” He’s a brilliant composer; with Mothership, which is the idea of this vessel which other things dock into from other cultures, I wanted to have a piece that really reflects Tampa Bay as a hub for a huge amount of places.
And the Ravel’s Bolero, of course, ties back into the Spanish theme. It’ll be a nice palindrome for the concert. And It’s difficult to play a piece after Bolero.
How about this: When you were a musician in London, what film soundtracks did you record?
Oh, I did many. With the London Symphony Orchestra, we did a couple of Star Warses, I did about four Harry Potters and lots of other things. When I played with the London Philharmonic, we did Thor and Lord of the Rings.
That was at Abbey Road, wasn’t it?
A lot of them, yeah. Star Wars was all done at Abbey Road. We used to call it “Happy Road,” because when we went there, we were earning more money.