Florida Orchestra's Michael Francis talks making music and a home

The Florida Orchestra's new music director will guest conduct this weekend as he settles into his bay area home.
British conductor Michael Francis' three-year contract starts in the 2015 season. His local ties run deep; his wife, Cindy, is from Lutz. CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times
British conductor Michael Francis' three-year contract starts in the 2015 season. His local ties run deep; his wife, Cindy, is from Lutz.CHERIE DIEZ | Times
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Michael Francis was relieved. His books had just arrived from overseas.

The British conductor was starting to plot a life here as music director of the Florida Orchestra. He had spent the weekend with his pregnant wife, shopping for furniture to fill their new Land O'Lakes home, visiting Bed, Bath & Beyond, narrowly avoiding Ikea.

But to Francis, the reading materials were as vital as tables and chairs. There were magazine pieces on Barber, the book on Copeland and the Great Depression, the biography of Mozart …

"I spend a lot of my time reading around the subject, because I think that's what people relate to," Francis said. "It's the key to helping them understand the composer."

All eyes will be on Francis this weekend, when he guest conducts the Florida Orchestra in his first series of concerts since being named music director in June. He will conduct two more series this season, even though his three-year contract doesn't start until the 2015 season.

He was in town preparing for his new home life and this weekend's program: Ives' Central Park in the Dark, Barber's Violin Concerto and Elgar's Symphony No. 1. To delve into the latter, he was reading Edward Elgar and the Nostalgic Imagination.

Francis doesn't believe in dumbing down music, he said. He believes in giving context.

"The art of listening in some ways is naturally dwindling because we have other forms of entertainment," he said in an interview with the Times at Bay News 9 studios Monday. "People 100 years ago would have such an understanding of the intricacies of music. They knew if a composer was doing something, he was setting up an expectation. So if he went the other way, they would get the joke. … Now, we just think it's all very elegant."

Francis, 38, hopes to impart his style of musical illumination locally, while navigating an international career that includes roles with the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden and the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego. After this weekend, he goes to Sweden, then Malaysia, then South Korea, then Canada.

His local ties run deep. Francis' wife, Cindy, is from Lutz. She graduated from Gaither High and met Francis at a charity ball in London. The Harvard graduate has worked in nonprofits and investment funds, and now manages many aspects of her husband's career. She's expecting their first child in December.

"I'm very happy to be living here," Francis said. "The area is wonderful. We're very near my wife's family. When I fly into Tampa I'm starting to feel like I'm flying home."

Francis arrives at a time of change for the nonprofit orchestra, which has announced departures of its chief operating officer and artistic operations director. Musicians' contract negotiations are coming next year. After riding out tough times in past years, the orchestra has enjoyed increased financial footing and a successful fundraising campaign.

Francis will be involved in the business side, he said.

"I always see these chances of being ones of great opportunity," he said. "The previous models of how an orchestra works, particularly in America, were very successful for decades, but it's changing. And I think orchestras now are becoming very progressive, very free-thinking, very far-reaching in their understanding of the complexities of the modern world. And I think they are open to slightly changing that model. And I feel this orchestra is progressive. It's not stuck in the mud."

Aging audience members don't worry him, he said, because they often have more time and resources to attend concerts. He is encouraged by new programs to attract kids, because parents in their 30s and 40s come along.

He is not here to fix anything broken, he said — the orchestra already plays at high standards thanks to past conductors Stefan Sanderling and Jahja Ling. He is focused on getting to know the musicians, and vice versa.

"How do they work?" he said. "Do they get nervous? Do they shine in concerts? Do they get uncomfortable if I look at them just before a solo? All these sorts of subtle things that you want to understand. The key thing is to galvanize artistically so that by the time we actually start properly in September 2015, they're already up and running. They know the standards we're going to be achieving. And they know what needs to be done."

He doesn't get nervous. He enjoys the spotlight. He is pragmatic.

When he conducts this weekend, he will stick to a tested routine— a big lunch and a nap, because he finds sleep essential for brain function. Some bananas and nuts later, because too much food throws off your body chemistry. A quick prayer.

Then he'll conduct a program that's somewhat poetic to his own experience, and that of the orchestra.

The first half is about a new empire coming up, America rising. In the second half, the British empire has reached its peak and is starting to drop. But through it all there's a sense of hope.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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