Michael Francis — Florida Orchestra’s new maestro takes us to the movies

The TFO director has made an epic debut.

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click to enlarge STAR QUALITY: TFO’s Michael Francis. -  - Marco borggreve
Marco borggreve
STAR QUALITY: TFO’s Michael Francis.

The Florida Orchestra: A Night at the Oscars
Fri., Oct. 9, 8 p.m., Straz Center, Tampa;
Sat., Oct. 10, 8 p.m., Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg;
Sun., Oct. 111, 7:30 p.m., Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. 
floridaorchestra.org, 727-892-3337.

Michael Francis kicked off his first year as the Florida Orchestra’s music director with what he called “two genuine epics”: the notoriously difficult Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, played by Valentina Lisitsa with pounding urgency and shimmering lyricism, and Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, captured by Francis and the orchestra with full command of the music’s many colors, from whispery to thunderous (including the famously stirring “Fanfare for the Common Man”).

So this week’s program is… movie music?

Isn’t that a bit of a comedown?

Nah. In fact, it’s just as epic as the first — only this time the epics have more familiar names, like Lord of the Rings and Gone with the Wind.

Speaking by phone a few days before the season’s opening night concert, Francis told me he’s a huge fan of film music. While he concedes that at one time classical purists might have sniffed at programming such poppy fare alongside the likes of Bach and Beethoven, he credits John Williams, Spielberg’s go-to guy, for upping movie scores’ respectability quotient.

“He is so skilled with his harmonization,” he says of Williams. “With him we started to see [film music] as sort of autonomously good on its own. His melody lines are as effective as Tchaikovsky’s.”

And now, he says, when we look back at the work of composers like Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, we realize that their film scores would provide the same pleasure even if we were hearing them on their own, as symphonies. “Whichever way you look at it, the music is extremely high quality.”

Conversely, some scores venture into avant-garde realms that, while they might alienate a concert audience, are absolutely vital when it comes to gripping a movie audience — as in the “high-pitched dissonance, the small movements and tremolos” of a horror film. Without Williams’s “hypnotically terrifying” score for Jaws, says Francis, the movie would be like “a holiday video on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Bruce the Shark’s “Duunnn dun... dun dun” will probably not be resurfacing during the orchestra’s “Night at the Oscars” program (the first in this season’s Pops series, and the only Pops concert Francis will be conducting); he says the orchestra did a Williams evening last season, so they don’t want to repeat themselves. The choices that are scheduled represent a cavalcade of Hollywood’s greatest hits over the decades, starting with Korngold’s overture for the 1935 Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood, followed by an arrangement of Max Steiner’s “Tara” from Gone with the Wind and such immortal earworms as Nino Rota’s themes from The Godfather, Bill Conti’s Rocky, and Thomas Newman’s Skyfall, to be sung by soprano Hein Jung.

TFO won’t be providing film clips during the concert; audiences will have to rely on their own movie memories. But that’s not the case for musicians lucky enough to perform on movie soundtracks; they get to be there at the creation. The British-born Francis, a double bassist by training, played on several fabled movie soundtracks recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, including three Harry Potter films and The Queen. Since the music is added at almost the final stage of production, he was able to get a lot of sneak peeks — including, he says, “one of the great thrills I have had in my musical life.”

On his way to play golf one Sunday morning in 2002, he got a phone call from a member of the LSO asking if he could be at Abbey Road Studios in an hour to fill in on a recording. He didn’t know what it was — until he got there and saw John Williams, and realized he’d be playing on Williams’s soundtrack for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
One benefit of working with Williams was that he liked to have the movie playing on a large screen while the musicians were playing. Because double bass players often play long, held notes, says Francis, “we [could] sneak a look at the screen at the same time.” And up on the balcony, looking down at the orchestra, was the movie’s chief baddie: the Emperor Palantine himself, in the person of actor Ian McDiarmid.

This weekend, the star everyone will be looking up to is Michael Francis. His charm, smarts and musical chops have already won him rave reviews and standing o’s. And if, when he’s conducting the theme from Gone with the Wind, it occurs to you that he even looks a little movie star-rish — think Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes — well, we wouldn’t disagree. 

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