A World of Impact: An Interview with Florida Orchestra Director Michael Francis

Michael Francis/Photo by Marco Borggreve                                                                   
By Julie Garisto,  AliveTampaBay Correspondent

Florida Orchestra Director Michael Francis has grabbed ahold of his duties as a Tampa Bay cultural leader with the same fervor he waves his conductor baton.

In recognition of his enthusiastic community outreach, Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts is honoring the British-born conductor with its  TBBCA International Artistic Achievement Impact Award.  Other Impact Award recipients will be announced on May 17 at the TBBCA Charlie Hounchell Art Stars Scholarships Awards Ceremony.  The TBBCA Impact Awards  are on Thursday, Oct. 19.

TBBCA Director Susana Weymouth divulged the news about Francis’ honor to AliveTampa Bay.

“Since being appointed Music Director of The Florida Orchestra in the 2015-16 season, renowned conductor Michael Francis has brought his international experience, expertise and perspective for the benefit of our community,” Weymouth said in a press statement. “He has led The Florida Orchestra through a profound transformation. Under his direction, TFO has dramatically increased and deepened engagement with the Tampa Bay audiences and beyond, reaching throughout the State of Florida, including bringing The Florida Orchestra to places like malls and hospitals, engaging with youth, schools and universities, offering free programming, and performing in communities without access to a resident orchestra.”

Weymouth joins thousands of orchestra enthusiasts who’ve given the Maestro an ovation as The Florida Orchestra approaches its 50th Anniversary milestone. Highlights of the anniversary season include the return of music director Jahja Ling, conducting Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (Jan. 6-7); and the orchestra’s first performance of Verdi’s Requiem since 2002 (April 20-22).

Francis’ contract with The Florida Orchestra was recently extended to 2021, and he also serves as Music Director of the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, where he spearheads a comprehensive, multi-year exploration of the life and music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The amateur cricket player who occasionally plays the bat-and-ball game for fun and double bass player has worked with several major orchestras — London, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and San Francisco symphonies, the Japan, Seoul, and New York philharmonics, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Mariinsky Orchestra, as well as other major orchestras in Europe, Asia and North America.  On top of those accomplishments, he played on John Williams’ soundtrack for Star Wars Episode II:  Attack of the Clones.  It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

In a phone Q&A with AliveTampaBay, the hard-working conductor charms with wit and panache, softened by that Olde English self-deprecation and a sincerely collaborative spirit. For instance, he is emphatic in crediting the entire Florida Orchestra organization for its successes and stresses how honored he is to work with its “great musicians and staff.”

AliveTampaBay:  Congratulations on your Impact Award. The Florida Orchestra has most certainly had more of an impact than ever on the community, including a collaboration with the Tampa Bay Lightning to produce the team’s one-time theme song and free pop-up concerts in hospitals, malls and other places — and most recently the Woodson African-American Museum. Does this involvement provide a source of satisfaction for you?

​Michael  Francis:  I feel the work we do in the community is some of the work I feel most proud of and passionate about. The Florida Orchestra had already been involved with community outreach before I came, but we’ve taken it up a level. I feel that we’re not limited by the size of our concert halls but the size of our communities. When we take a road trip, when we take music to those who cannot always travel to us, whether for health reasons, geographical or financial reasons, we’re offering the healing power of an important art form — music: the healing power, the unifying power, the way it helps us understand our own lives and the way that it touches us without using our intellect. I love bringing music to places where people aren’t used to hearing it, particularly places like hospitals and schools.  Recently we allowed children to play side by side with The Florida Orchestra. Our cultural engagement shows how essential the Florida Orchestra is to many — a jewel in the crown of Tampa Bay cultural life.

ATB:  As you stay on at the orchestra for the next half of the decade, how would you like to see the orchestra continue to make an impact?

MF:  Well, I would like to see where Tampa Bay will be in the next half decade. The metropolis has grown so spectacularly so quickly — and well. I think what we want to do is continue at the same pace — commensurate growth with Tampa Bay —  building on our reputation as one of the most exciting, fastest-growing orchestras in North America. We want to serve more and go more places. The Florida Orchestra already has musicians who are so tremendously talented. That said, if we continue to work harder and become even better and continue to serve the diverse citizenry of Tampa Bay with greatness and support from the community and do it at a higher level, then we’re doing the right thing.

ATB:  T​he Florida Orchestra is turning 50 next season. Wow. Can you talk about what this momentous occasion means to you?

​MF:  It’s not really what it means to me but what it means to Tampa Bay — to have a full-time, professional orchestra which performs at such a high level. We should take a moment and think about how incredibly fortunate we are, what we can do to keep it and help it grow and move forward. I also want to celebrate the musicians, the music of the past, and we have a world premiere coming up commissioned just for the Florida Orchestra by a composer from Tampa Bay, Michael Ippolito.

ATB:  Carmina Burana and music from Star Trek and Star Wars, as well as other selections next season, share an epic, celebratory quality. Did you choose those intentionally to convey, in a big way, the importance of the anniversary?

MF:  I think that’s a good point. What I’m looking to do is celebrate what the Orchestra has done, what the Orchestra is and what it will be, and I’m doing that through the choice of music. So, yes, there’s an epic quality to the new season; there’s a celebratory quality, and there’s a continual development of what we do, which is take the great classics and help people to see them in a deeper way, partly through communication during our pre-concert talks, and creating programming that’s complementary, contrasting works so that the program is a constant evolution and the listener feels completely fed, almost saturated with the healthy variety of well-balanced selections.

​​ATB:  Could you tell us a little about what influenced your trajectory from double bass player to conductor?

MF:  Well, I wanted to be a conductor from my early teens, and the double bass is  a great instrument because you’re forced to listen to everyone else because you’re generally accompanying, so it’s a wonderful instrument — you’re at the bottom of the harmony. Then I chose to join the best orchestra I could join, to learn what it was like to be on the inside of an orchestra.  I was fortunate to join the London Symphony Orchestra, where I could play on the soundtracks of some of the world’s greatest films, such as the Star Wars and Harry Potter soundtracks. I worked with the world’s greatest conductors, in the world’s greatest concert venues. From that, I gained a great understanding and when it came to becoming a conductor, I was always studying it myself, so when a conductor wasn’t available and someone was needed to fill in, I stuck my hand in the air and said I could do it. But really it was — how can I put this — ‘the harder I practice, the luckier I get.’ It was a lot of hard work but ultimately, great fortune and circumstances that allowed me to jump in for ailing conductors.

ATB:  You will have been directing the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego for three years in a row now, right? What new insights have you come away with exploring and re-exploring the amazingly multifaceted works of the famed composer?

​MF:  Well, first a quick word on the festival. The orchestra itself is filled with some of the greatest concert masters of America and some of the greatest principal players. I’ve learned so much from just working with musicians who perform at such a high, high level. The other thing I’ve learned is that when you look at the music by Mozart, a great composer, every area of his life, you get a greater sense of how not just the trials and tribulations of his life but how he found beauty in them through his music. From being a great prodigy, he went on to have a lot of great difficulty in his life. How he reacted to that adversity provides a testament to us all and how we should never just give up when circumstances don’t work out our way. There’s perseverance; there’s grit; there’s a huge amount of hard work alongside God-given talent. When we continue to work hard and do good things, like Mozart, then wonderful things will come.  I feel very privileged to look deeply into this man’s life.

ATB:  You are well-versed in music from your homeland, but, admittedly, I am not. Who are England’s most influential composers and what qualities distinguish their works?

 MF:  There are those, I’m sure you know, Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten —  Great Britain as a whole is known as a country of literature and poetry. We think of Wordsworth and Shakespeare, but it’s also a country of music, as well. There was a pretty large gap, I must say, between Henry Purcell and then the late 19th and 20th century composers, but British music has a wonderful reflection of the landscape and of the people, as well. There’s a pastoral quality; it’s very noble at times and deeply rewarding to play.

ATB:  On the other end of the arts spectrum, the popularity of Netflix’s Mozart in the Jungle probably has some of your fans wondering how much of the series reflects real life conductors and musicians. Have you had a chance to watch it?

​MF:  I haven’t seen it, but I can tell you, having played in an orchestra, that I’m sure Mozart in the Jungle isn’t half as interesting as the real life of a conductor or musician. There are aspects that are probably embellished, but anything that brings attention is a good thing in my mind.

ATB:  How do you find living here and raising your family in Tampa Bay?

MF:  I love living in the Tampa Bay area. I proposed to my wife on Belleair Beach — she’s from here, as you know — and my daughter was born in Lutz. My wife’s family lives nearby. We have a very tranquil family life here. I think it’s a wonderful area. I was recently away, and it was snowing. It was great to come home where it’s warm, and the people are warm, too.

Interviews may be condensed and edited for brevity, clarity and style.


Editors Note:  This article has been updated.  The name of the award received by Michael Francis and the date (May 17) of the TBBCA Charlie Hounchell Art Stars Scholarships Awards Ceremony have been corrected. The reference to Mr. Francis being out of the country during the May 17 awards ceremony was incorrect.  Also, Mr. Francis didn’t marry his wife on Belleair Beach, but proposed to her there.  He is not a former cricket player but an amateur who plays the game occasionally.  The spelling of Mr. Elgar’s and Mr. Britten’s last names is corrected.



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