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The art of conductivity: Maestro Michael Francis of the Florida Orchestra

Bill DeYoung

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"It’s not always easy programming, but we put a huge amount of time and care into it," Michael Francis says. "I like to re-assess great masterworks and help people see them in a new way, or see them in the way that the composer really intended. I like to do a lot of new music – not just contemporary music, but pieces they might not have heard." (Photo: Matt Dine/The Florida Orchestra).

Suave, erudite and comfortable in a tuxedo, native Londoner Michael Francis could very well  be Tampa Bay’s James Bond  – if, that is, 007 had wavy red hair, a baby face and an overwhelming obsession with symphonic music.

Michael Francis prefers listeners be stirred, not shaken.

He assumed the role of the Florida Orchestra’s music director in 2014, following the departure of Stefan Sanderling. As such, the 43-year-old not only plans the repertoire for each season, he’s principal conductor – the motor that drives 67 full-time professional musicians – a key member of the business staff and the de facto face of the organization.

Now in its 51st season, the orchestra is enjoying its greatest success ever, announcing a record 125,700 paid seats in the 2017-18 season. Ticket sales, which provide 30 percent of the $12 million operating budget, have increased 45 percent since 2010.

“The rest of our revenue is from donations,” Francis reports. “So people have been giving to this orchestra for years – and they’re feeling such a sense of pride, almost like they’re reaping in the harvest now.”

He’s a big believer in the idea of music as an essential element, like air and water. “Music is entertaining, it’s relaxing, but there’s so much more to it as well. And that’s why we feel this passion to share this marvelous art form, being played at the very highest level, with as many people as possible.”

Florida, truth be told, wasn’t on Francis’ radar during his tenure as a double bassist with the London Symphony Orchestra. “You get one life, so you should do what you feel you were meant to do,” he explains. “And I always felt I was meant to conduct. For me, it was a calling, from when I was a teenager.”

His LSO employers and colleagues were aware that he would one day leave to become a conductor. “But I wanted to go there with the desire to see how it all works on the inside,” Francis says, “and to observe the greatest conductors play with the greatest orchestra and see how it feels. And bring that to my conducting.”

From 2012 to 2016, he was chief conductor and artistic adviser to Sweden’s Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. It was during this tenure that the Florida Orchestra’s then-President and CEO Michael Pastreich began the search for a new music director.

It didn’t hurt that Francis’ wife Cindy – whom he’d met at a charity event in London – was a native of Hillsborough County.

The opportunity to help mold the organization, he says, was a powerful incentive. “Michael and the staff had done a marvelous job of recovering from the crisis in 2007 and 2008,” Francis explains. “But I felt that we could expand quickly, and strategically. And so we really put a lot more effort into reaching into the community. There was some community engagement, but not much.”

The organization branched out, adding performances in schools, and hospitals, and at additional community events. “I think now we’re playing to around 80,000 people for free every year,” he beams. “If you believe in the capacity of music to help us understand ourselves and the lives of others, then you need to take it to people who can’t come to your concerts.”

It’s a “social, ethical, moral and civic duty,” he insists.

“Really, the reason I came was to build something. Tampa Bay is growing so incredibly as a community. I wanted to build something that would have a legacy for decades to come. If you think of all the great American cities, they all have great orchestras. The community deserves that here, and I want to be instrumental – pardon the pun – in really making this orchestra be a shining light in the cultural life of Tampa Bay for way past my time here.”

He’s looking forward to the imminent arrival of new President and CEO Mark Cantrell. “He feels exactly the same. We both want to build the next great American orchestra.”

Cantrell, he explains, “will be the voice of the orchestra. He will be here week in, week out, talking to people at all the concerts, even when I’m not. The president role is such an essential role in the business community, and telling the compelling message of what we do. And creating a structure for all our gifted staff members to shine. Working with the board.

“And growing the organization, because Tampa Bay is growing super fast. We want to grow commensurate to that, and to be a real reason people want to move here.”

Francis is rarely idle. When he’s not conducting the Florida Orchestra, which is onstage in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater just about every weekend from September to May, he’s guest-conducting elsewhere in the world (the orchestra employs several guest conductors for non-Francis events).

He recently signed a contract to be chief conductor for the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz in Germany.

Never fear, Tampa Bay. He’s not their music director; he’ll just fly over to conduct every so often. “Terrific orchestra, different repertoire from what I do here,” he explains. “So they’re very complimentary.

“And Tampa to Frankfurt is a direct flight, and it’s very close to Frankfurt. But above all, it gives me a chance to do something in Europe, and that’s a very different system to America. And to grow as an artist and a musician, and to help grow an orchestra there as well. They’re not in any way getting in each other’s way.”

Next on the radar is the annual Florida Orchestra Gala, Saturday, Feb. 9 at the Mahaffey Theater. Guest artist this time around is the British vocalist Seal, best known for the exotic 1994 hit “Kiss From a Rose.”

Seal’s Standards is nominated as Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album at the 61st Grammy Awards on Feb. 10 – the night after he sings at the Florida Orchestra Gala. “To have him come, and sing all those wonderful songs with us the day before the Grammys ….” Francis enthuses, “it’s a marvelous date night for people, too, knowing that they’re really contributing to the orchestra’s continued success.”

Francis recently signed an extension on his Tampa Bay contract, through 2024. He’s not, he insists, looking beyond that. “At the moment, there’s so much for us to do. In five or six years, by the time this contract’s up, I want us to be absolutely established as the crown jewel of the Tampa Bay cultural life. A calling card, like a sports team. Like the beach. Ensconced, established and umbilically tied to every aspect of Tampa Bay life.”

In the meantime, this British transplant is learning about Tampa Bay life, too. “Even though my daughter’s 4, I’ve managed to evade going to Disney World just yet,” he laughs. “But it will soon be coming, and I look forward to it. With the amount of Princess things going on in my house, I think once she sees it we’re lost forever.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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