Florida Orchestra names Michael Francis new music director

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Published June 24 2014
Updated June 24 2014

The global search went on for three years, but in the end it took just two key performances for Florida Orchestra leaders to know they had their conductor.

On Tuesday, they named British musician Michael Francis as the orchestra's new music director. Leaders were so wowed by Francis, they ended their hunt a full year earlier than expected.

"I will work the orchestra," Francis said, calling from home in Eton in England. "They seem keen, hungry. And they're almost crying out for it."

Francis, 37, will be the orchestra's fourth music director in nearly 50 years. He succeeds Stefan Sanderling, who had a tumultuous departure from the orchestra in 2012, deciding to leave two years before his contract was up. Francis will join the Florida Orchestra for its 2015-16 season, the start of a three-year contract.

Francis would have taken the job no matter what, he said, but life has sweetened the deal. His wife, Cindy, happens to be from Lutz and has dozens of family members in town. He met her at a charity ball in London and proposed on Clearwater Beach, and she is pregnant with the couple's first child. The family plans to move to Tampa Bay.

Francis already is chief conductor and artistic advisor to the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden. He will stay on there his first season here. (It's not uncommon for a conductor to hold several jobs.) He has guest-conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, symphonies in Houston, Seattle, Milwaukee, Quebec and Vancouver, and two dozen programs for the San Francisco Symphony.

The hire brings stability and direction to the non-profit orchestra, where musicians have worked under a rotating wheel of guest conductors since Sanderling left amid apparent artistic differences. The orchestra was already a year into the search then.

The orchestra declined to say how much it will pay Francis. Sanderling was paid $256,486, according to a public tax return.

The process of selecting a music director is filled with nuance, patience and symbiosis. It's an audition, a courtship, a "kabuki dance," orchestra president Michael Pastreich calls it.

"Conductors don't apply for jobs," Francis said. "It's a strange thing. I had other orchestras that wanted me and I said no. There has to be a powerful musical connection."

When an orchestra invites a conductor, search committee members watch how the conductor runs rehearsal. They note repertoire, style, personality.

Francis charmed everyone right away, Pastreich said.

"He immediately took the orchestra," he said. "He became the clear favorite by the end of his first week. ... There's a rare confidence about him. It's clear that this guy knows where he's going."

• • •

As a child, Francis was a "mad sportsman," as he put it, who loved rugby, soccer and cricket. But his father was a musician who taught double bass.

One day he came home from school and asked to try the bass. It felt natural. By 12, he was touring Hungary with a youth orchestra, playing at jazz concerts and musicals. By his teens, he wanted to conduct and thought the best path was playing in symphonies.

"Conductors would go sick and I would be brave enough or stupid enough to say, 'I'll have a go,' " he said. "I developed a good reputation where I could jump in."

In 2007, he replaced Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra. A month later with two hours' notice, he stepped in for composer and conductor John Adams in a performance of Adams' own work. In 2009, he replaced André Previn for a German tour of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Francis also developed a reputation for being a genial community face. His orchestra in Sweden is mostly funded by the government, and Francis has to lobby for his cause.

"You're almost trying to convince politicians to keep the funding up there," he said. "You have a lot more stability, but you also have the tremendous instability of the fact that the government can change."

Francis has worked with everyone from Lang Lang to Rufus Wainwright, enjoys music from acid jazz to U2. In an era when orchestras are trying hard to capture new audiences, Francis said he understands why they play rock series and scores from Pixar movies. He will conduct one pops concert and one coffee concert for each season, in addition to masterworks. And when it comes to masterworks, he's willing to go big.

"Nobody wants to eat meat and two veg and chocolate pudding at each meal," he said. "You need to give a very balanced diet when you come out with the war horses or the big pieces. I don't shy away from them. When you look at them, look at them in a new way. Don't just look at them because they put bums on seats."

Conductor and composer Haig Mardirosian, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Tampa, had not heard of Francis before seeing him with the orchestra in the fall.

But he was impressed by the pedigree, and even more impressed by what he heard. He thought the orchestra would choose Francis or Tito Muñoz, hired by the Phoenix Symphony in February.

"He's so widely traveled, he's established himself as a kind of generalist," Mardirosian said of Francis. "He has not yet defined himself as the ultimate Mozart conductor or the ultimate Beethoven conductor. He's not Bernstein doing the Mahler cycle. That's a very good thing for the Florida Orchestra. It has got to serve so many different constituents. The generalist conductor is the best possible thing."

• • •

Say an orchestra likes a conductor. Now the conductor has to like the orchestra back.

"I go to many different orchestras," Francis said. "Sometimes it takes a while. It takes a few visits. Here it was one of those nice occasions where you start conducting and straight away you feel a very good bond with the orchestra. They were excited to be at work. They wanted to make music together. There wasn't any cynicism."

In November 2013, he brought a program of Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 with soloist Orli Shaham.

"It showed everything in terms of contrast and style and different kinds of music making," said orchestra concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, who was on the search committee. "I can't ever tell if anyone is good until I see Mozart. It's my litmus test. Not everybody's, but it's mine."

Committee members watched Francis conduct in Miami Beach, and Pastreich traveled to Sweden. The orchestra invited Francis back to conduct the final morning coffee concert of the season in May.

The cerebral, challenging repertoire he chose gave some people pause.

"I was very nervous when I looked at the pieces on paper," Pastreich said. "We decided he's the conductor, he understands what his concert is hoping to achieve. We have to trust him."

Francis envisioned a journey from darkness to light. He went forward with Steven Stucky's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (after Purcell), Andrzej Panufnik's Sinfonia Sacra and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 — the one everyone knows.

"The Beethoven 5th is something we've all played a thousand-million-billion times in every orchestra." Multer said. "It makes mincemeat out of many orchestras. If you actually listen to it, you hear that it's a complete sloppy mess. It's not together and it's just boring. It's hard to conduct. It's hard to play. And it really shows what people are made out of.

"I'm sure he was looking at us real hard as we were looking at him. Let's see if we can do a Beethoven 5th."

By the end, the audience at the Mahaffey Theater was standing and clapping wildly, and not just for the Beethoven. One woman wrote Francis saying she'd never heard the Panufnik piece, Francis said, but decided it should now play at her funeral.

"That concert could not have been a greater success in terms of sales, in terms of musicality, in terms of audience reaction," Pastreich said. "It was clear that was an orchestra knowing they were playing for their next boss."

Soon after, Pastreich took Francis to lunch at Mise En Place in Tampa. Pastreich felt like he was proposing marriage. He said something official about how the search committee had directed him to ask Francis to be music director.

"Okay..." Francis said. Was that a yes? Pastreich decided to be more direct:

Will you be our new music director?

"There was this cheeky, impish look on his face for just one second," said Pastreich.

Yes, Francis said. And then they got down to business.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected].com or (727) 893-8716.