S.F. Symphony Summer Conductor Michael Francis on the Joys of Performing Outdoors

Categories: Free Concerts, Q&A

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Chris Cristodoulou
​In the conducting world, Michael Francis is a rising star. Young, talented, and armed with a devastatingly cute British accent, this is a conductor to keep an eye on. Fortunately for us, Francis will be in town this summer, conducting the San Francisco Symphony's annual summer concert series from July 7-12.

Originally a double bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra, Francis first gained recognition as a conductor in 2007 when, with only 12 hours' notice, he stepped in to replace an indisposed Valery Gergiev for the BBC's Gubaidulina Festival. Only a month later, he was asked to replace John Adams in a performance of Adams' own works with the LSO at the Philharmonie Luxembourg, this time with only two hours' notice.

Since then, Francis has performed with orchestras around the world, collaborating extensively with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Last spring, he was appointed chief conductor and artistic adviser of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden.

Among the concerts Francis is conducting is a free concert in Golden Gate Park's Sharon Meadow on July 10. The program -- Beethoven's Fifth, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 (with pianist Valentina Lisitsa), and Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain -- is sure to be a crowd pleaser.

SF Weekly talked to the charismatic conductor about the joys and challenges of performing outdoors.

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How is playing outdoors different than performing indoors?
Well, I just did a concert two weeks ago in Houston which was outdoors. It was nearly 100 degrees and incredibly humid. They had air-conditioning on the stage, which was both helpful and hard for the musicians, because the heat and then the cold affected their instruments.

As a conductor ... most of these outdoor concerts are amplified anyway, so you don't have to change much of what you do. If it isn't amplified, then we just can't play too softly. Really, you just do the best performance you possibly can and make sure musicians can hear each other. You play to the same standards.

How is an outdoor audience different?
I love these concerts, because I'm delighted to see more people coming to classical concerts. You get thousands of people as opposed to hundreds, and that's a wonderful way for people to be introduced to the sheer joy of classical music. I'm always pleased to see lots of people there. Of course, people are sometimes distracted but generally in the outdoor concerts I find that people tune in and are totally absorbed. I did a concert in Taiwan once, playing the double bass with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was indoors, but they played it on a large screen outdoors, and when I walked out there were nearly 10,000 people sitting outside, completely silent like they were in a cathedral.

Besides free outdoor concerts, what other ways do you try to make classical music more accessible?
I'm a firm believer in bringing in a bigger audience. I think a lot of it has to do with education. I think orchestras should go out into the community far more, and I think S.F. is good at that. You should work with children to get them not to be afraid of orchestras and realize that they're great fun. I also like to write program notes when I can, talk to the audience when I can.

What we also need to realize is that people nowadays are busy. 200 years ago, music was one of the main forms of entertainment and most people had a higher level of musical education. Now people have far more things to do. We can't sit back and wait for them to come. We have to go out to them.

How do you feel about coming back to S.F. to conduct?
I love the city. It's one of the most unique places in the U.S. It has an older feel and it's tremendously artistic and cultured. The orchestra is really just fantastic, they are really world-class. I've only conducted them once, but they're lovely people to work with, and great musicians.

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