1. Stage

5 questions for Michael Francis of the Florida Orchestra

The music director is entering his fifth year with the orchestra, which has a Beethoven-heavy season opening Sept. 27 in Tampa.
Michael Francis leads a community chorus during one of the Florida Orchestra's Sing Out Tampa Bay sing-alongs. [MICHAEL FRANCIS | Florida Orchestra]
Published Sep. 19
Updated Sep. 19

When it comes to Michael Francis’ first four years with the Florida Orchestra, the numbers tell the story.

During the 2014-15 season, the year before he became music director and conductor, the orchestra played to 62,000 people at free community concerts in places like parks, malls and hospitals.

Last year, it was up to 91,000.

“Seeing that blossom has been one of my great sources of pride,” Francis said. “We as an organization are more geared toward connecting these composers, and the trials and tribulations that they went through, in a deeper way with the music — and then being able to communicate it much better. As a result, we’re seeing better attendances.”

Francis is entering his fifth year at the head of the Florida Orchestra. He was hired from Sweden’s Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, lured not only by family ties — his wife Cindy hails from Lutz — but by the promise of leading a top regional orchestra.

RELATED: Fall Arts Preview: A guide to Tampa Bay’s top stage and museum events of 2019-20

In a summer phone call from Granada, Spain, where he was leading a tour with Canada’s National Youth Orchestra, Francis talked about what he has learned in his first four years and what he expects in Season 5, which kicks off Sept. 27. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What has been your favorite experience conducting here?

Seeing the orchestra really grow and start to blossom towards the top of its potential has really been very enjoyable. I’ve always really enjoyed seeing how people have connected with the way that we communicate, through preconcert talks, that sense of connection of going deeper into the music. That’s been a deeply rewarding experience.

What’s one piece that’s opened your eyes or expanded your mind in a way that you might not have expected?

For me, there are certain musical points of growth. In the second season, we did Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. At that point, I really felt that the orchestra had the understanding of what I was demanding. Then in the next season, we did Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, which was a really great moment of flexibility, musically. And last season, the final concert, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Those are three real musical highlights amongst many, many others. But I also felt some of the partnerships we’ve done — the Dalí partnership, when we had dancers and Dalí artwork, that was very rewarding to me. The partnership with Geff Strik with (Schoenberg’s) Transfigured Night. Collaborating and bringing across various art forms, really expanding people’s horizons in a multimedia, multisensory way, is having profound effects. It’s (resulted in) comments from people that have been coming to the orchestra for 30, 40 years saying how much more they’ve connected to it.

RELATED: A poem, a painter, a ‘Transfigured’ performance — and it all came together over coffee

In your first four years, what’s one mistake you have learned from?

With all leaders who want to have good ideas, sometimes pushing for change too soon, I think. Learning to balance progress with patience, I would say, would be a mistake, and the thing that I need to most work on.

Sting, center, performs during the Florida Orchestra's 50th Anniversary Gala celebration at the Mahaffey Theater. [Tampa Bay Times (2017)]

You have said you think the Florida Orchestra can be the best regional orchestra in America, which is a lofty goal, but also kind of a nebulous one, an undefinable one in some ways. What would it take for that sort of recognition to become manifest?

It is very hard to do that. How do you say which orchestra is better than the other one? There are certain parameters we can look at. For me, it is becoming the best communicative orchestra in North America. When people are coming to our concerts, they leave understanding themselves and the lives of others around them. I think we haven’t fully maximized our true potential in Tampa Bay. If we do that properly, and as Tampa Bay grows to be one of the great regional areas of America — which it already is, and is growing to be even more so — and we keep commensurate with that, then we’ve achieved it.

You’re very big on the stories behind the music. What story is the Florida Orchestra going to tell this season?

This season and next season are slightly different, because we’re taking the biggest composer of all, Beethoven, and the great shadow which is cast across every composer since him. What did he stand for in his trials and tribulations of life, with his deafness, the battles he had, his perseverance, his hope, his faith, his desire to unite humanity? Also, who are the Beethovens of today? Who are the modern American masters? You’ll see it as we go through the year, in Eric Whitacre or (Christopher) Theofanidis. Who are the ones who are really understanding the zeitgeist of what’s going on today?

RELATED: Fall Arts Preview: The Florida Orchestra is bingeing on Beethoven, and here’s why

Florida Orchestra

The 2019-20 season opens with a program that includes Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s Lenore Overture No. 3, Mason Bates’ Mothership and Ravel’s Bolero. Michael Francis conducts; Aldo Lopez-Gavilan is the featured pianist. 8 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Straz Center, Tampa; 8 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; 2 p.m. Sept. 29 at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $18 and up. (727) 892-3337.


  1. The cast of American Stage's production of "Vietgone" includes Sami Ma as Tong and Jeff Kim as Quang. Courtesy of Joey Clay Studio
    An immigrant story with voice offers a fresh perspective.
  2. On Saturday, J.B. Smoove will perform at Ferguson Hall, part of Tampa's Straz Center. RICHARD SHOTWELL  |  Invision/AP
    The comedian known for portraying Leon Black on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ likes to wing it. He hits the Straz Center’s Ferguson Hall on Saturday.
  3. The cast performs 'On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492' in the Stage West production of 'Songs for a New World', which will be presented Oct. 17-27. Pictured at top, from left: Paris Seaver, Anthony Agnelli and Nicki Poulis. Standing in front: Jay Garcia. Timothy Rooney
    See ‘Songs for a New World’ and other shows in the north Suncoast
  4. Wayne Brady will perform at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Sunday. Courtesy of Mahaffey Theater
    There’s Jeanne Robertson and an inventive Florida Orchestra collaboration, too.
  5. Emilee Dupre and Eric Davis star in Freefall Theatre's production of "The Turn of the Screw." Courtesy of Thee Photo Ninja
    A spooky, risk-filled performance will leave you with questions. | Review
  6. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" will roll through Tampa as part of the Straz Center's 2019-20 Broadway series. JOAN MARCUS  |  Straz Center
    ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ Roy Wood Jr., ‘Vietgone’ at American Stage, Piff the Magic Dragon and more.
  7. Music director Michael Francis leads the Florida Orchestra in the Star-Spangled Banner on Friday during the season-opening program at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. JAY CRIDLIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Friday’s opening night portrayed Tampa as a melting pot, delivering diverse pieces pulled from around the world. | Concert review
  8. Bernadette Peters is pictured at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 2015. CHARLES SYKES  |  AP
    Peters follows the likes of Sting and Seal playing with the orchestra.
  9. Aldo Lopez-Gavilan, shown performing "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Florida Orchestra at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater in January, will join the orchestra for its 2019-20 season-opening program this weekend. J.M. LENNON  |  Lennon Media
    Plus, SuicideGirls at Tampa Theatre and comedian Bryan Callen at Tampa Improv.
  10. Ned Averill-Snell, Ami Sallee, Emilia Sargent and Alan Mohney, Jr. in Tampa Repertory Theatre's Dinner With Friends, 2019. Courtesy of KLGold, LLC
    The Pulitzer-winning play illustrates the aftershocks of divorce on marital friendships. | Review