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A new anthem: Florida Orchestra’s Michael Francis becomes American citizen

The conductor, who grew up British, has been performing in the U.S. since he was 16.

TAMPA — Michael Francis raised his right hand.

Normally when he does this, he’s holding a baton, poised to swoop into a downstroke on a masterwork by Beethoven or Bach.

On Thursday, though, he held a microphone. In his other hand was a program marked with stars and stripes. Before him stood his wife, his daughter, and dozens of immigrants from 26 nations, Iran and Venezuela and Syria and Kosovo, all raising their right hands, too.

The music director of the Florida Orchestra is good in front of a crowd. But this was new. This was something he’d never done before.

Francis, British since birth in 1976, turned to a flag and spoke.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...”

• • •

Whenever the Florida Orchestra plays The Star-Spangled Banner, Francis faces the audience while conducting. But he does not sing along. He can’t. It’s wrong, he believes, to sing another nation’s anthem. For him, it was God Save the Queen, or silence.

Music director Michael Francis leads the Florida Orchestra in the Star-Spangled Banner during the season-opening program at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

Francis grew up in Sussex, along England’s southern coast, the son of an Irish mother and Welsh father, whose bloodline he traces to the pirate Henry Morgan. The family was poor, he said, growing up in government housing before he received a music scholarship to a more prestigious school.

Francis is thoroughly English; he roots for Everton in the Premier League and lives and dies with big rugby and cricket matches. But he was fascinated by the culture of America, home of Gershwin and Bernstein, Springsteen and Nirvana.

“When you’re a kid, man, (you think) they’ve got real light sabers in America! They’ve got cars that fly!” he said. “You see E.T., you see Star Wars, and you think: It happens like that in America!

He first performed here at 16, blown away by the scale of New York. For years he came and went on a series of work visas given to performers. Once he became a conductor, he got a different type of visa, one classified for an “alien with extraordinary ability.” A bit pompous, he thought, but he took it.

When he was appointed music director in 2014, he was Florida Orchestra’s third straight foreign-born leader, following German Stefan Sanderling and Chinese-Indonesian Jahja Ling. He didn’t think about becoming an American citizen until he married one. Cindy Francis was born in New York to a Puerto Rican father and Ecuadoran mother; she moved to Lutz at age 4. Michael and Cindy’s daughter, Annabella, has dual citizenship by virtue of Michael’s British heritage.

Three years ago, Francis got his green card. Around then, he and Cindy started talking about naturalization. That would make him safer from deportation in the event of some unforeseen crisis.

Mainly, he just wanted to share in what his wife and daughter already had.

“I feel just as connected to their Americanness as they do to my Britishness,” he said.

From left: Clarice Caines-Browne, 67, Michael Francis and Idael Hernandez, 31, at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Office in Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

The process took many months, and Francis, who conducts all over the world, was at the mercy of the U.S. government’s timetable. If he was called in for an interview, his lawyer told him, don’t push it back. Make it work.

So he did. At great expense.

In September, he received an appointment for biometric fingerprinting. At the time, he was conducting an orchestra in Germany. He booked a flight back to America, got fingerprinted, returned to the airport, and was back in Germany for his next rehearsal. For his interview, same thing — flight from Germany, over to the office, straight to the airport, rehearsal the next day.

One person told Francis he’d seen immigrants get turned away for no more than a speeding ticket. He thought back five years, to when he got a ticket near Brooksville — 42 in a 30, something like that. He was carrying his British driver’s license, which listed his date of birth in the British style (date, month, year), rather than the American (month, date, year). The officer entered the date the wrong way. Francis wondered if that might come back to haunt him.

The process has taught him something about the world. Francis is avowedly apolitical, but he has “observed quite a clear shift in the way that governments are dealing with immigration,” including the Brexit debate in his homeland. And that couldn’t help but factor into his decision.

“To have that certainty is important, because you never know what can happen. The government could change their policies, so it could be dangerous in that sense. I wanted to make sure I had security from that.

“Once you have citizenship, they can’t take that away,” he added. “You’re an American.”

He paused.

“Can you take it away?" he wondered aloud. "I’m not sure.”

He thought a second more, then smiled.

“Well, I won’t give them cause to.”

• • •

Florida Orchestra music director and conductor Michael Francis sings 'Proud To Be An American' during his U.S. citizen naturalization ceremony. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Annabella turned 5 on Wednesday. The Francises celebrated with a two-night, princess-filled trip to Disney World, leaving overnight Thursday so as not to get caught in morning traffic.

At the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, officials sat Francis in the front row, between a construction worker from Cuba and a Publix clerk from Saint Kitts and Nevis. They shook his hand and asked him to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and he said yes.

A man talked about the importance of voting. They played a welcome video from President Trump. Francis waved a little flag and sang Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. Sixty-two immigrants took the Oath of Allegiance, in which they “renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty.”

Francis found that part powerful: All the things you give up to be American. And how eager these people were to do so.

“It’s very touching,” he said. “Great countries accept people. That’s the thing.”

Annabella ran up to her father, who leaned down for a hug.

“You’re American!” she said.

“I’m an American now, yes," he said. “Isn’t that exciting?”

He meant it. He especially felt it during The Star-Spangled Banner, a song he knows forwards and backwards, but only sang for the first time on Thursday.

It wasn’t the words, but the music. That’s what got him. That’s when he felt it the most.

He can’t wait to put it on a program.

Michael Francis walks with his five-year-old daughter Annabella. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

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