A Brit embracing Americana, Michael Francis takes over Florida Orchestra

Michael Francis is about to debut as music director of the Florida Orchestra, bringing new energy, attention to detail and a passion for community connection.
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ST. PETERSBURG

The new maestro of the Florida Orchestra walks into his empty office, sets down his briefcase and gestures to the empty bookshelves lining one wall.

"You can see I haven't really done much with decor," says Michael Francis, 39, who is about to debut as the fourth music director in the orchestra's 48-year history.

For now, the only photos of his wife and infant daughter are on his phone. Yet the orchestra is transforming through this space, almost by the hour. For months, Francis has been preparing to lift the baton at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and conduct Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

But before all of that, there is something else that has Francis' attention, about which he is a little worried.

He was booked to throw out the first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game. Francis is athletic. In his native England, he played soccer, rugby, cricket and golf. Now he is supposed to throw a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches, as thousands of people watch.

For the Brit who is trying to ingratiate himself into American life, who is trying to become a face in Tampa Bay, this is more than just a pitch.

• • •

In his office, Francis wears jeans with a navy blazer, white shirt. He says he's not a neat freak and maybe that's true. But he has made a living paying attention to small details, and on this first day in the office, everything from the English brogues on his feet to the messenger attache case to the new Apple watch seems more carefully considered than thrown together.

The orchestra has been without a music director since Stefan Sanderling departed after nine years, two years before his contract was up. The orchestra and Sanderling have both been tight-lipped about the reasons behind the split, but it's obvious Francis and Sanderling have philosophical differences.

Take Sanderling, who told the Times in 2014 that the role of the orchestra was to curate the art of classical music, not to be popular, or "to be a service enterprise for a community."

Then take Francis.

After being named the music director in June 2014, Francis conducted popup concerts at the International Plaza and area hospitals.

His plans surpass even that. The community outreach is a key part of his mission, something orchestras across the country have been doing more of in recent decades to reach new audiences.

But without a full-time music director for the last three years, the Florida Orchestra has been parked in neutral with the engine running. It has affected not only the philosophical mission, but the music.

Orchestra leaders avoided hiring new musicians. Guest conductors led concerts, but there was no one to shape the sound that makes an orchestra stand out and ultimately defines it.

"You think of the Berlin Philharmonic," Francis says. "That sound was formed by long, long relationship with Herbert von Karajan, well over 30 years. That would be a sound that he envisaged — that rich, deep, warm sound.

"And then he would hire players to match that sound or work with them. It became almost a way of playing."

In that bare office with Francis are two staffers who will mediate between the maestro and the public. Edward Parsons, 36, the artistic operations director, has been here two months. A Juilliard masters' graduate, he played bassoon for the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Now he negotiates 65-page contracts with musicians and a slew of other tedious but crucial details.

Cori Lint, the new artistic operations coordinator, is meeting Francis for the first time.

"Are you a musician?" Francis asks.

Lint, 25, tells him she is a cellist who played on cruise ships through Scandinavia.

She and Parsons will act as Francis' primary filter, regulating his interactions with the outside world. Francis also serves as music director of the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego and is in his last season as chief conductor and artistic adviser to Sweden's Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra.

In the runup to a concert, even those things must take a back seat. Francis talks about the preparation he must do for every rehearsal, part of what he calls "this huge, complicated jigsaw puzzle of my time."

He asks Lint for a list of musicians' names so that in rehearsal he can call on them by name instead of by their instrument.

Lint has already been told of Francis' preference for bananas, nuts and coconut water in his own dressing room.

"I'm not that much of a diva," Francis insists, as if anxious to quell a wrong impression forming. In fact, he prides himself on not needing a lot of hand holding.

"I'm not that demanding," he says. "I know where I need to be and I turn up on time."

In sync with the start of his tenure, Florida Orchestra leaders have hired four new musicians, redesigned the logo and rolled out a new website. Francis will conduct nine of the 14 Tampa Bay Times Masterworks concerts this season, as well as Rhapsody in Blue in a coffee concert and a Night at the Oscars movie music concert.

The free popup concerts, hospital visits and interaction with schools will only increase under his watch, says Michael Pastreich, the orchestra's president and chief executive officer.

"I think Michael is helping to bring a fundamental clarity to (community) service," Pastreich says. "We might have been heading that way anyway, but not really as fast or in as crystalline a way as we are now."

But first, he's got to get that pitch over the plate.

• • •

Francis was barely a teenager, growing up in Sussex, when the idea of conducting first entered his head. He had learned to play the double bass from his father, who taught the instrument.

Unlike instruments such as the violin or the trumpet, which can play a leading role, the bass almost exclusively complements the rest of the orchestra.

"You rarely get a melody," Francis says. But at age 14, during a rehearsal, he says, "I was sort of feeling the bass line should be more proactive."

Without exactly meaning to, he threw himself into a composition by Gustav Holst, taking grand stabs with his bow.

"Someone, I think it was the conductor, said, 'That boy's going to be a conductor someday,' " Francis remembers.

After college he began a job with the London Symphony Orchestra, but he never got conducting out of his system.

"Once you've done it," he says, "once you've felt what it's really like to shape the score and have musicians play together, it's like someone injects you. You're stuck.

"It's like choosing your favorite football team as a child. You can't ever change it." (His favorite is Everton.)

He played with the London Symphony and also filled in a guest conductor, including once on two hours' notice. In 2009, he shined while replacing André Previn in a German tour of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony.

Francis has since gone on to conduct throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

Another turning point came at a charity ball, when he met Lutz native Cindy Rodriguez, who was using her Harvard MBA to work for a foundation in London.

Francis proposed to her on Belleair Beach. They married in 2013 and live in Lutz with their 9-month-old, Annabella. She handles his business in New York and London, as well as his travel arrangements.

"In terms of our working relationship," Cindy Francis said, "we couldn't complement each other better — with his artistic background and my business experience, we have a lot of fun working together and traveling the world."

• • •

At lunch on Beach Drive, Francis orders fish. He is a fastidious eater during concert season, avoiding refined sugar because it hurts concentration.

He stays trim with swimming and golf, though the latter is not as much exercise as he thought "because here, everyone uses carts."

He is a fan of the beach but not sharks and says he will never swim at night.

"I don't care if there isn't a shark in 3,000 miles," Francis says. "I saw Jaws at an impressionable age."

With Parsons at lunch, he goes over prospective pro bono appearances with the orchestra. Francis is interested in using closed-circuit television in hospitals to reach every room with live orchestral music.

He recalls a 10-year-old girl at All Children's Hospital. A violinist had played in her room earlier this year. The girl, who had late-stage cancer, said, "That was awesome!"

Music engages every part of the brain, he says. With enough free concerts and interactions with schools, Francis believes every student who comes through Tampa Bay area public schools should see three or four concerts by the time he or she graduates from high school.

He is equally concerned about retirement centers. He wants the musicians to visit places like Sun City Center and residential areas for seniors.

Florida is one of the biggest states in the nation, Francis says, "and we don't have an orchestra at the moment at the level of that stature. We can grow way, way more ... I think it can go a very long way."

• • •

Back in his new quarters, principal librarian Ella Fredrickson lugs in four Fed-Ex boxes of sheet music, representing a fraction of the $80,000 the orchestra will spend on music this season. All are movie scores for the Night at the Oscars concert.

Francis and Fredrickson must adjust each score they will use, some of them created decades ago by movie studios with unlimited budgets, to the instruments they will actually have.

"The difference between a studio orchestra and a symphony orchestra," Fredrickson says, "is that in Hollywood studios they have all the resources they want at their fingertips. So a lot of this music is scored very big. If they wanted five saxophones, they got it."

They start with the theme from Rocky. Francis saw Rocky IV in 1985 and has watched all of the movies since, some of them multiple times.

He loves the explosiveness of the score, the implicit call to arms.

"You're just sort of punching everything in sight," he says.

A standard version of the theme, Gonna Fly Now, plays on Francis' phone, while Francis and Fredrickson make notes on their scores. Someone has written a famous Rocky Balboa line in the margin of Francis' score, which prompts the maestro to repeat it.

"Yo, Adrian!" he says, in a pretty decent south Philly accent.

Francis and Fredrickson turn their pages at the same time.

"Do we have a bass guitar as well?" he asks. They do.

"Now the strings," Francis says. Two and a half minutes in, the full orchestra has taken over. Francis' pencil is in the air, moving side to side to the beat. Then the left hand joins in, conducting invisible instruments the way some people drum with their fingers.

"I'm ready to throw my baseball now," he says.

• • •

It's the Rays game. It's the dreaded pitch.

The grounds crew has finished combing the infield of Tropicana Field. Francis arrives wearing a Rays jersey with the number 1, followed by his wife and father-in-law, Eddie Rodriguez, who has coached him on throwing. A Rays staffer gives him some last-minute advice, too. Don't move his front leg, he said. Plant it.

A few minutes later the announcer calls his name and Francis marches to the mound. He holds the baseball to his chest, rears back and fires it down the middle. The ball takes a slight cricket-like hop before crossing the middle of the plate.

It was close. A little higher and it would have been a strike.

"It was down the middle but it was a little low," Francis said moments later.

His eyes were focused straight ahead, as if making a mental note about what to do differently next time.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

       
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