As a conductor of the Florida Orchestra, Michael Francis spends time on the details. He is the border collie nipping at the herd, the proofreader who preserves accuracy to the text, the timekeeper.
As music director, he revels in the big ideas. Francis, 40, opens the Florida Orchestra's latest season Sept. 30, and he is always looking for ways to connect his latest inspiration with a concert.
That's what he was doing in May 2015 while chatting with a friend, mezzo soprano Jamie Barton. Francis was working with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducting the world premiere of a work by American composer Jake Heggie.
Heggie has composed nine operas, at least two (Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick) to worldwide acclaim, and collaborated with the biggest names in opera and Broadway. He had composed the new concerto, The Work at Hand, for Barton, a frequent performer at the Metropolitan Opera and a Grammy nominee. Francis loved the piece and wanted to perform it with the Florida Orchestra.
But how? What else would the orchestra play to make a full concert?
Barton suggested Sea Pictures, by British composer Edward Elgar. That got Francis thinking. The Work at Hand is not literally about the sea — a poem by a woman who was dying of cancer makes up the lyrics — but those lyrics talk about great struggles, of fighting against the boundary of death as explorers once dared to sail off the edge of the earth.
Four Sea Interludes by Benjamin Britten also came to mind, as did La Mer, composed by Claude Debussy on the southern coast of England, 3 miles from Sussex, where Francis grew up.
The result is a Florida Orchestra concert, Songs of the Sea: Britten, Elgar and Debussy (Nov. 11-13), the same weekend as the Blue Ocean Film Festival. Both Barton and cellist Anne Martindale Williams, for whom Heggie also composed The Work at Hand, will perform. The concert's theme also ties to the audience, Francis said, to "the fact that we are by the sea, to celebrate the fact that Tampa Bay is so surrounded by water."
Francis will lead the orchestra's first concert of the season Sept. 30 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Some of the season's Masterworks concerts will emphasize French and Russian romanticism, a pairing Francis first encountered while playing with the London Symphony Orchestra.
"I have always felt that the French and Russian connection is palpable, powerful and passionate," he said. "There's always been a happy marriage between the two countries in terms of culture."
The season includes a full lineup of pops, family concerts, morning coffee concerts at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater and three happy hour concerts, a new format at the Straz Center.
But there is no substitute for the "core repertoire," work that still stands in a category of its own. That's why the season includes five concerts fully or partly devoted to Beethoven, starting with the season opener.
"To me, he is the greatest composer," Francis said. "He was a man who was painfully deaf, at that point completely deaf, and experiencing many other great trials in his life. And yet he wrote this great poem to human victory, the condition, and the necessity of brotherhood. And this is a man for whom, at times, society was awkward. That bravery, and to completely break apart the symphonic form into something new — to be the first one through the wall in that way, and then to bring everyone along with you in a piece that has united us for centuries — that is extraordinary."
Playing the work of Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn makes for better musicians, Francis believes. In his second year as music director, he is working with the orchestra on what he calls a "core sound." That's not playing notes or concerts, but developing a distinctive voice. That process starts with the largest section, the strings, then moves to "the winds and the brass, balancing the chords and color and things," Francis said.
"We will build on that now," he said. "And then what has become the new thing should become the automatic pilot, that should be the base level. And then we build again. I'm excited by what we can achieve, but it does take time. It really does. This is not a quick fix. It's something you develop over years."
Francis recently signed a new contract, extending his stay at the orchestra through the 2020-21 season.
"For me, the decision was a relatively easy one," he said. He has enjoyed leading preconcert talks, which start an hour before concerts and last 30 minutes. He has spearheaded an unprecedented number of community events, the orchestra popping up in malls, airports, hospitals and schools, always pulling ideas together, as if they were adjacent eyeholes in a set of shoelaces.
"I just feel that we are on the cusp of something absolutely wonderful here," he said.
Concerts to catch
The Florida Orchestra's season brings in serious talent. The Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony (Jan. 7-8) features Augustin Hadelich, right, whom Francis called "an outstanding violinist, one of the great ones of our time." Another standout soloist is Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winner Vadym Kholodenko for Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 (April 8-9). Kholodenko's name was in the news this year when his wife was charged with killing the couple's two young daughters in Texas.
The renowned classical guitarist Milos is leading the Dalí Experience (March 3-5). Pianist Jeremy Denk will appear in Jeremy Denk Plays Ravel (Oct. 21-23). And conductor and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of the famous author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, will partially conduct while playing Beethoven and Rachmaninoff (March 31-April 2).
Three orchestra principals will also perform as soloists: concertmaster Jeffrey Multer in Beethoven's Violin Concerto (Dec. 2-4), oboist John Upton on Mozart's Oboe Concerto in the Brahms, Mozart and Mendelssohn concert (Jan. 21-22), and harpist Anna Kate Mackle on Debussy's Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane in Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 program (Feb. 17-19).
For it annual gala (Feb. 4), the orchestra landed a violinist you might have heard of. Itzhak Perlman, right, will play some of his favorite music from movies, including the theme from Schindler's List; As Time Goes By from Casablanca; and the love theme from Cinema Paradiso.
Masterworks audiences will also hear from two other contemporary American composers besides Heggie. Magiya by Sean Shepherd, the New York Philharmonic's first recipient of the Kravis Emerging Composer award, is part of the Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony concert. Between Stravinsky and Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (April 28-30) features The B-Sides by Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center's composer in residence.
This season features the acrobatic Cirque de la Symphonie (Oct. 7-9), a holiday concert (Dec. 9-11) and tributes to Ray Charles (Oct. 28-30), Broadway (Jan. 13-15), the opera (March 24-26) and more.
Concerts pay tribute to Genesis, featuring former Genesis guitarist Daryl Stuermer (Oct. 14), David Bowie (Feb. 3) and Journey (May 5).
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.