michael francis tackles 5 (follow-up) questions

let’s take a look in the rearview mirror.  it’s fair to say i have not witnessed the band gush so much over a guest conductor.  they even forced a fourth curtain call last monday night by doing this rare and adorable little foot stomp thing.  i think the beaver speaks for all of stumplandia when it says to last-minute maestro francis: y’all come back now, yeh hear?

so, what were your impressions of the band and mr. lauderdale?

I had a wonderful week in Portland.  As soon as I arrived I was made to feel very welcome by the management, and within just a few minutes with the orchestra I knew it was going to work very well; it just felt right.  The Oregon Symphony is full of extremely talented musicians who offer their gifts with warmth, openness, and a strong desire to work together.  I found I was able to make all sorts of musical suggestions merely by showing them, and more often than not they immediately understood me.  This allowed for gloriously free and spontaneous music-making in which I could take their ideas and they could take mine – with the added benefit that I didn’t need to say much (which, as any orchestral player will tell you, is a very good thing!!!).

I can honestly say I have never met anyone like Thomas…  He has an extraordinary amount of creative energy and talent; his enthusiasm and ‘joie de vivre’ is completely infectious!  Thomas brought a unique approach to the Grieg, and created some moments that I will always remember; both touching and yes, unexpected!

the program last week included uncle igor’s norwegian moods, herr schubert’s fifth symphony, the piano concerto by grieg, and danzon numero dos.  which piece was the most difficult to conduct?

Although this is an obvious point, each has its idiosyncratic difficulties.  The Stravinsky required a lot of attention to detail.  As with all of his music, the further one delves into the subtleties the more one sees.  It appears to me he is incapable of writing anything that is not exquisitely interesting.  The Schubert should have been the hardest as it is such a transparent and elegant piece.  So many of the principal themes appear in the quietest dynamic, and the delicate wind writing requires a particularly fine sense of balance from the accompanying string players.  It was clear to me from the first run-through that the musicians have a highly-refined sense of classical style and proportion, and I must greatly commend the work that Carlos Kalmar has done here.  It allowed us to move beyond merely developing ‘style’ into the far more exciting area of spontaneous chamber music.  The Grieg has its own challenges, but fortunately the Oregon musicians listen extremely well and so my job was relatively straightforward – hang on to Thomas!!  The Marquez was just a whirlwind of fun.  I loved how the musicians would surprise me each night with something new, and I hope I managed to give them the odd surprise to keep them on their (dancing) toes as well!

if i could buy you a drink, what would you order?

My Irish mother would be offended if I didn’t say a pint of Guinness.  However, my Welsh father would take umbrage if I ignored a pint of Welsh bitter.  So in the pursuit of Celtic peace, I shall say an English gin and tonic.

cheers to that!  hey, let’s say all your performances with the oregon symphony were recorded, and you had to choose only one night to put on cd.  which concert would you pick?

Hmm… I really loved the freshness of the Schubert from Sunday afternoon, but as a whole, I would probably take the Monday night; the Marquez was just searingly hot!

muy caliente!  final query: what’s it like being a last-minute maestro?

One of the great joys is that marvelous weeks such as this one can occur out of the blue.  I have enjoyed similar weeks in other cities such as San Francisco, Stuttgart, London, Tokyo, and I have to say, I loved each one!  Musicians are very adept at reacting under pressure – after all every rehearsal and concert is full of unexpected twists and turns – and as a musician from London, I am very used to learning large amounts of music with very short notice.  I would say the first few years of my time in the London Symphony Orchestra basically involved turning up and sight-reading new pieces virtually everyday!  This has definitely given me confidence to think on my feet.  As someone who has sat in an orchestra for many years, I have been made keenly aware of how often the players fix things themselves.  After all, conductors do not make any noise (apart from the odd grunt and groan), and so the real heroes in last-minute fill-ins are the players; they have to immediately adjust and still make beautiful and engaging music.  In many ways it is a greater pressure on the individual soloists, such as principal oboe, who have to suddenly rethink their approach to fit with the new kid at the front!

wow – a giant thank you for some brilliant responses.  i’m extremely stoked to note that maestro francis also goes down in the history books as the very first interviewee to buy the classical beaver a drink.  for the record, i ordered a pint of rogue jazz guy ale.  thank you michael!

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1 Response to “michael francis tackles 5 (follow-up) questions”


  1. 1 jaf515 March 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    At Monday night’s concert, watching Thomas internalize the orchestra, the piano, and the Grieg was riveting, and a joy. He just breathed the whole thing. The spontaneous applause that just burst out at the end of the first movement was hardly a surprise. Hard act to foollow, but the Marquez managed it. The orchestra’s obvious exuberance in what has to be termed “the Marquez Experience” galvanized the fortunate audience. I’ve seen Leonard Bernstein in his prime “live,” and his notable visual component often added to, but also sometimes distracted from, the music. This was all Plus, and way more fun! Bravo, OSO!


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