ST. PETERSBURG — With the Florida Orchestra on stage behind him, Michael Francis was deep into a lecture Thursday about Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 when an alert went off on someone's phone.
The music director paused.
"An Amber Alert," he mused. "Is it an earthquake or a hurricane?"
The crowd tittered.
The orchestra has extended these pay-what-you-can Inside the Music presentations from two last year to three at the Palladium, owing in part to Francis' charm. He's a ham, he loves opportunities to give and take and with audiences, who seem to enjoy his passion for explaining the best music ever written in that clipped British accent. After a moment, he resumed a compelling case that Beethoven's most iconic symphony was really about the French Revolution, not the composer's impending deafness.
This week the orchestra also extended Francis' contract another three years, pushing his commitment through the 2023-2024 season. It's a major step for the fourth music director in the orchestra's history, coming on the heels of a record-breaking 50th season. The deal also signifies that Francis, 42 and entering his fourth season, could be here to stay.
"What I really wanted to do was to create a long-term commitment, to really do something positive," said Francis, whose guest-conducting performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 convinced orchestra leaders to hire him.
"I didn't realize that until this week," Francis said of the timing of then-president Michael Pastreich's job offer following that coffee concert in May 2014. "So this is a significant moment in that sense, although we programmed this piece a long time ago."
"I think Tampa Bay is such an exciting area," Francis said. "It's growing so quickly and well. Florida is booming like nowhere else. And I really feel that there's something we can create here which is extraordinary. We've laid a lot of the very critical groundwork over the last three years and I thought, 'Well, rather than build for another three years, if I give it more time then we can plan ahead so much more."
Certainly he has other choices. This summer alone, Francis conducted the Cleveland Orchestra and orchestras in Finland and Germany. He also serves as music director the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego. But for the foreseeable future, at least, he would rather build Florida's largest orchestra than land a more lucrative job in a major city.
"It's a short life," he said, "and what matters is leaving a positive legacy. To me, it's far more important to build something and to grow something into something that will nourish and bless future generations."
Under his leadership, the orchestra has expanded free community concerts, performed in schools and hospitals, offered free violin lessons to at-risk children and sponsored teaching artists in Pinellas County schools.
Francis lives in Lutz with his wife Cindy, who grew up there, and their daughter Annabella, 3.
"My family is very happy here and we have a very nice school for my daughter," Francis said. "But I think the real reason is that when I came here, I gave my word that I would give my best. And I'm intent on doing that."
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Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.