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.
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.
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.
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?
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. floridaorchestra.org.