This weekend will go down as a cultural milestone for the Florida Orchestra: Its new music director takes over the podium and begins what he hopes to be a special friendship with the Tampa Bay area.
At 38, the England-born Michael Francis already has established himself with orchestras around the world, and won the position here over more than a dozen candidates vying for the job. Francis becomes the fourth music director in the orchestra’s 47 years — following Irwin Hoffman, Jahja Ling, and Stefan Sanderling — and inherits a seasoned group of musicians.
“They’ve done a tremendous job in shaping this orchestra,’’ Francis says of his three predecessors. “This is already a fine orchestra, and they’re playing at a high level. There’s tremendous potential here. Florida is growing so fast,and it deserves an orchestra on an international level.’’
The decision to accept the job was purely musical, Francis says, but it didn’t hurt that his wife, Cindy, hails from Lutz, and a number of relatives reside in the area. This made the choice a bit less stressful, even more so considering the couple expect their first baby soon.
“My wife’s mother lives 10 minutes away from us,’’ Francis says. “So, that helps.’’
The family will turn out this weekend to hear the orchestra in a program of American and British works: “Central Park in the Dark’’ by Charles Ives, Edward Elgar’s First Symphony, and Samuel Barber’s alluring Violin Concerto, featuring concertmaster Jeffrey Multer.
Francis signed a three-year contract earlier this year, and will also keep his post as chief conductor for the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, as well as a second home in Eton, England. Like most conductors, he will continue to make guest appearances around the world, absorbing new ideas in different cultural settings.
The American way of doing things, he says, requires a different mindset. “What I love about the American role (of a music director) is you can change the orchestra in a more comprehensive way. You’re more involved in shaping the institution and building strong relationships with the community. It’s not just conducting; it’s educational, and more communication with the audience. Plus, in Sweden the orchestra is 85 percent government funded, so if the political party changes you could be wiped out in one blow.’’
Francis sees himself as a musician’s musician with empathy for the working men and women who together make up a teeming mass of sound on stage. He paid his dues playing double bass with the London Symphony Orchestra, where he honed a work ethic, learned much of the standard repertoire, and got an earful on orchestra politics.
“I felt what it’s like to be on the shop floor,’’ he says. “I’ve seen what works well and what doesn’t. And the double bass was a great instrument to play because you’re always having to listen. Nobody listens to us because we’re in the back of the orchestra and we don’t get the melodies.’’
Francis comes to town at an opportunistic time. For years, the Florida group wrestled with financial issues, and Sanderling’s abrupt departure two years ago suggested artistic disparity. If Sanderling wanted to hone in on serious repertoire, the orchestra also needed to appeal to younger audiences with lighter, pop-driven fare ─ a tactic embraced by more orchestras today. Judging from increasing ticket sales and board support, the orchestra appears to have found its harmonic sweet spot, and everyone expects the prodigious young musician to carry the torch.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a struggle to attract new audiences because audiences have always been aging,’’ Francis says of the imaginary barrier separating younger and older patrons. “But we’ll still be expanding and advancing our educational relationship with the community and developing it for children. That’s important because the first time a child hears an orchestra, they don’t forget it. So I don’t feel worried about it.’’
Francis sees the orchestra as an institution that will become further ingrained in its community, and the community more ingrained in its orchestra. The reason may have something to do with the mounting distraction in our lives and the need to regroup. An orchestra offers a chance to reflect, disconnect, ponder, observe, and be patient.
“While listening to an orchestra, you’re forced into a different level of artistic interaction than any other art form,’’ he says. “It’s an opportunity to slow down the pace of life. Humans absolutely require this.’’
Francis hopes to build on this interaction and focus on interpreting what music means as much as how it sounds. He wants listeners to embrace “what the composer intended,’’ and to communicate those ideas with a visceral thrust.
“We won’t have a ‘Florida Orchestra’ style; rather, it will be Stravinsky or Brahms or Beethoven,’’ he says. “And it will be very much about the drama. It will be about giving listeners dramatic performances.’’