Autumn has just begun, but for the Florida Orchestra, it may as well be spring.
It's a time of renewal and budding relationships for the orchestra, which has spent two seasons reeling and healing from the abrupt, early departure of music director Stefan Sanderling. When orchestra leaders packed the 2014-15 season with guest conductors, they fully expected to still be searching for a replacement.
Then, a bit of kismet. They found an unexpected spark with Michael Francis, a British conductor who clicked with orchestra musicians on visits. He doesn't officially start his three-year contract until next year but will visit to conduct concerts this season.
Already, there are butterflies.
"It takes the energy and brings it to a different level," said Michael Pastreich, president of the Florida Orchestra. "Sometimes you go to a different level and you're a little scared of it. Sometimes you go to a different level and you go in skipping. And I think we're at the latter."
The good vibe casts the musical selections through a different lens, maybe one that's a little rosier. Let's look at the new season, opening Oct. 10, through our best set of moony eyes.
Getting to know you
Francis has already started setting up house. He has met with different orchestra department heads, having discussions about the mission and purpose of the orchestra in Tampa Bay.
"Michael is not somebody to sit back," Pastreich said. "He has strong opinions."
The orchestra first got eyes for Francis in 2013 when he conducted a program of Britten, Strauss and Mozart. The visit set off chemistry between Francis and the orchestra that resulted in the May job offer.
He will be the orchestra's fourth music director in nearly 50 years of ups and downs: financial strife, contract negotiations, new leadership, lower ticket prices, much more programming variety.
"The same transformation you've seen in the organization over the last half-dozen years, I think it's going to get cranked up," Pastreich said.
Francis' wife, Cindy, is expecting the couple's first child. She happens to be from Lutz and has been "almost as involved" as Francis in getting to know the orchestra, Pastreich said, as "somebody who is really smart that Michael really trusts."
Audiences can see Francis conduct three times this season. From Oct. 24 to 26, he will lead Ives' Central Park in the Dark, Barber's Violin Concerto and Elgar's Symphony No. 1, featuring violinist and orchestra concertmaster Jeffrey Multer. On Feb. 7 and 8, Francis will conduct Dutilleux's Métaboles, Ravel's Ma Mere L'Oye (Mother Goose) and Fauré's Requiem. And he'll round out his dates on March 14 and 15 with an all-Russian program of Stravinsky's Petrushka, Rachmaninoff's The Isle of the Dead and Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, which tells the tale of lovers damned to hell. Saucy.
If this season was a dating show, some pretty unusual pairings would emerge from the matchmaking pool. There's the suave cellist. The quirky hipster. Then one pairing is the oddest of them all.
The hottest date of the season is Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the most popular classical musician in the world. Ma will debut with the orchestra Jan. 31 at a gala affair at the Mahaffey Theater to benefit the Music for Life campaign. Tito Muñoz conducts the program of Dvorak's Cello Concerto and Carnival Overture, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol, which — fun fact — can be heard in the super-romantic movie Brokeback Mountain. The event features a Champagne reception and a seated dinner for sponsors, but the public can get tickets to the concert for $50 to $150 starting Nov. 3.
Radiohead + Brahms Mashup
Proving opposites do attract, the orchestra will perform a mashup of Brahms and Radiohead on Jan. 30 at the Mahaffey. Steve Hackman conducts the orchestra in performing songs from Radiohead's legendary OK Computer album, including Airbag, Paranoid Android and Karma Police, set to a backdrop of Brahms' Symphony No. 1. Will it defy convention and work? Or will we all gossip about this odd couple at happy hour?
Piano rocker Ben Folds joins the orchestra for the Ben Folds Experience on Nov. 7 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. You might remember Folds from Ben Folds Five and, more recently, as a judge on NBC's The Sing-Off. He'll couple up with the orchestra to perform his hits, including Effington, Jesusland, Steven's Last Night in Town, The Luckiest, Rockin' the Suburbs and the saddest of the sad songs, Brick.
LOVE IS ...
The season has some familiar love stories. Masterworks concerts Jan. 23 to 25 feature Prokofiev's suite from Romeo and Juliet and Rimsky-Korsakov's overture from The Tsar's Bride, an opera chock-full of mistresses and jealousy. Shakespeare's favorite doomed teenagers return for Feb. 11 and 12 coffee concerts, which also feature goodies from West Side Story and Carmen, and are led by Stuart Malina. But love comes in many forms, does it not? To wit:
Beethoven dedicated Symphony No. 4 to his buddy, Count Franz von Oppersdorff. (All right, the count was obsessed with Beethoven's work and paid him.) The fourth is often overshadowed by Ludwig's other works, including that famous fifth. But it has had fans, including 19th century composer Hector Berlioz, who adoringly compared the adagio to the breath of the archangel Michael. Hear it Feb. 20 to 22, along with Wagner's overture to Tannhauser and Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2. Perry So conducts.
Husband of the year
File under sad but sweet: Bela Bartok was ill while composing his Piano Concerto No. 3, not for cash but as a birthday gift for his wife. He didn't finish before he died, but friends and family swooped in to help create the piece as we know it today. The orchestra performs the concerto April 17 to 19, along with Higdon's Blue Cathedral and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Mei-Ann Chen conducts, with Jeremy Denk on piano.
The agony of love
Everyone has heard Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, or at least the movement O Fortuna. It usually plays when something dramatic is going to happen, in everything from Glee to Speed to that holiday classic, Shrek the Halls. But did you know it stems from a series of poems that translate to racy talk about the stress of love and sex and drinking? For example: "I am caught up in vice and forgetful of virtue, caring more for voluptuous pleasure than for my health." Don't worry — it's all in Latin, so it will go right over kids' heads. Catch the instrumentation and soaring vocals Nov. 14 to 16, when the orchestra teams with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. The program also includes Schubert's Rosamunde overture and Debussy's Nocturnes. Danail Rachev conducts.
NOT ALL RAINBOWS AND HEARTS
Of course, this romantic platter is just a taste of choices from the orchestra this season. Expect a variety, from the music of Pixar (Nov. 28 to 29) to Harry Potter (Oct. 30) to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, featuring soloist Jennifer Koh, stepping in for a pregnant Midori (Jan. 16 to 18).
Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.