Four New Maestros Take Over At Top Florida Orchestras

British-born Courtney Lewis is music director-designate of the Jacksonville Symphony.
British-born Courtney Lewis, 30, is music director-designate of the Jacksonville Symphony, succeeding Fabio Mechetti.
By John Fleming

FLORIDA – And then there were four. Over the past couple of years, the largest professional orchestras in Florida all carried out music director searches in the same time frame.

Two of the ensembles – the Naples Philharmonic  and the Sarasota Orchestra – had new artistic leadership under contract last season (see “Maestro Makeover Puts New Face on Florida Orchestras”), with the appointments of Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko and Estonian conductor Anu Tali, respectively, though each led only a few performances.  Now the two are poised to begin their first full seasons as music directors in Florida in 2014-15.

Meanwhile, the Florida Orchestra, which performs in the greater Tampa Bay area, and the Jacksonville Symphony concluded their searches at the end of the 2013-14 season. In Jacksonville, Courtney Lewis was named music director-designate in late May, to succeed Fabio Mechetti. A few weeks later the Florida Orchestra designated Michael Francis as successor to Stefan Sanderling. They will make appearances this season and assume their full directorships in 2015-16.

Michael Francis will take over the Florida Orchestra. (Marco Borggreve)
Michael Francis takes over the Florida Orchestra. (Marco Borggreve)

Lewis and Francis are both British and in their 30s, but they took different paths to conducting.

Francis, 38, is a former double bassist with the London Symphony Orchestra who developed an interest in conducting while playing under such maestro role models as Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, and Valery Gergiev. He follows in the tradition of the paragons of double bassist-conductors, Serge Koussevitzky and Zubin Mehta.

“It’s almost an ideal instrument to learn from,” Francis said. “You hear everything from the bottom up. You get the odd tune, but most of the time you’re accompanying. You’re often switching around to play with other sections in the orchestra in a very unique way. And since the instrument is not directly next to your ear, like the violin full blast in your left ear, you can hear everything. You’re visually higher up. And don’t tell anybody this, but the parts aren’t quite as difficult, so there’s time to listen and watch.”

Francis came to notice in the musical world in 2007 when he replaced an indisposed Gergiev for a concert with the LSO, and then two months later substituted, on two hours’ notice, for John Adams in a performance of the composer’s works. He has conducted many leading orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Dresden Philharmonic, and Helsinki Philharmonic. He is in his third season as chief conductor and artistic adviser of Sweden’s Norrköping Symphony Orchestra.

Lewis, 30, was a clarinetist as a student in England, but he had no desire to be an orchestra player and took a more conventional route to the podium than Francis, holding positions as a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. For six seasons, he led Boston’s Discovery Ensemble, a chamber orchestra known for innovative programming and outreach to schools, but it folded in July. This season, he begins a two-year appointment as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Jacoby Hall's Casavant organ in Jacksonville.
Jacoby Hall’s Casavant organ in Jacksonville was a magnet for Lewis.

A big attraction for Lewis was Jacoby Hall, which is the Jacksonville Symphony’s home for concerts and rehearsals, as well as the administrative offices. Renovated in 1997, the hall seats 1,800 and features a Casavant organ.

“The fact that the orchestra is able to rehearse and play in that hall all the time, and that it has rights to it every night of the year, and that everything is located in one place, the offices and the support staff, makes for a great setup.” Lewis said. “I think that kind of thing really matters if you’re trying to build an orchestra and develop a sound.”

For Lewis, the shining example of building an orchestra is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England under conductor Simon Rattle during the 1980s and ’90s. They played in a state-of-the-art concert hall, released many invaluable recordings on the EMI label, and toured internationally.

“What he did in Birmingham has always been the model of what I want to achieve with a regional orchestra,” Lewis said of Rattle, now conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. “He stayed there a long time, he filled the concert hall week after week with programs that included extremely difficult, challenging music, and he placed music education at the very center of everything that they did.”

Drawn to Florida Orchestra’s wide reach

Unlike Jacksonville, with its dedicated concert hall, the Florida Orchestra performs in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater. For Francis, that was something of a challenge in a program he conducted last season featuring Also sprach Zarathustra, whose orchestration includes pipe organ.

Members of the Florida Orchestra in concert. (JM Lennon)
Members of the Florida Orchestra in concert. (JM Lennon)

“With an organ, you typically want an acoustic rehearsal, Francis said. “What I did notice is that the orchestra knew the halls very well and knew how to make adjustments. And equally, when I wanted to make adjustments during the concert, they responded very fast. So I think it’s not necessarily a musical problem. What I think is exciting is that there are very few orchestras in America reaching three individual big cities in one week. It expands the demographics of the orchestra’s reach dramatically.”

Francis led some relatively unfamiliar fare in his two programs as guest conductor in the Tampa Bay area last season – including Steven Stucky’s arrangement of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary and Andrzej Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra – but it was probably his impeccable performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, with soloist Orli Shaham, that won over the orchestra musicians. There are some tricky transitions between soloist and orchestra in the Mozart, and the conductor’s sublime handling of them exhibited a firm understanding of the score and how to communicate that to the players.

“Mozart — that’s always the most telling,” he said. “American orchestras don’t have a huge amount of rehearsal. We didn’t have much time to talk about much at all – apart from some articulations. I had to show everything. What I was pleased by was how responsive they were.”

As music director-designate this season, Francis will lead two masterworks programs for the Florida Orchestra, with repertoire ranging from Ives’ Central Park in the Dark and Elgar’s First Symphony (Oct. 24-26) to a French-themed program anchored by Fauré’s Requiem (Feb. 7-8).

For several reasons, Francis was inclined to lead an orchestra in Florida. For one thing, he enjoyed playing with the LSO in its summer festival held (mostly) every two years for decades in Daytona Beach (the last was in 2009). “That was one of my first Florida experiences,” he said. “I remember getting off the plane in July, and it was like walking into a sauna.” In addition, his wife, Cindy, grew up in a Tampa suburb, and the couple, expecting their first child, are planning to move from London to the Tampa Bay area. The conductor likes Florida’s potential.

“It’s such a huge state,” Francis said. “It’s due a great orchestra. I think Florida is ripe for tremendous artistic growth. That’s what really excited me.”

The Jacksonville Symphony performs at Jacoby Hall.
The Jacksonville Symphony performs at Jacoby Hall.

Unifying influence in Jacksonville

Lewis will be conducting two programs as Jacksonville’s music director designate in 2014-15, including the curtain raiser with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique on Sept. 26-27. His second program, on May 14-15, is the first that’s “completely my own invention with no remnants of what was programmed before,” he said. It includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 92, Thomas Ades’ Three Studies after Couperin and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. He will be busy with auditions during the season as Jacksonville has openings for a half-dozen positions, including  principal bassoon and principal second violin.

The Jacksonville Symphony has gone through some rocky years, with work stoppages over musician contract disputes, lagging attendance, and the accumulation of considerable long-term debt. Lewis is confident he can be a good influence in turning things around.

“While it’s not my responsibility to be involved in the minutiae of these things, it is my job to provide the kind of leadership that brings everybody together, to ensure that the board and the musicians and the staff share a common purpose and common vision in terms of where the orchestra is going,” he said.

Lewis knows whereof he speaks, having spent the past five years as a staff conductor with the Minnesota Orchestra, which had a long, damaging lockout of the musicians by the board over the players’ contract. “My only insight from that is that when the board, musicians, and staff aren’t aligned and don’t share a vision, things can go very wrong,” he said.

In Minnesota, Lewis seemed to have a good relationship with the musicians, and his final program with them in June was praised for its pairing of Kevin Puts’ Fourth Symphony and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. “The Puts symphony was mesmerizing and impeccably executed,” critic Rob Hubbard wrote in the Pioneer Press. “Throughout both, Lewis…displayed extraordinary confidence in his skills and interpretive ideas, and the orchestra responded with two rewarding performances.”

Bringing a high profile to Naples

Andrey Boreyko leads the Naples Philharmonic. (Artis-Naples)

In Naples and Sarasota, Boreyko and Tali bring some Slavic flair to the West Coast of Florida. Boreyko, a Russian, has the highest profile of the state’s four new music directors. He headed orchestras in Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and other German cities, and is a frequent guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic and other top-tier ensembles. That sort of resume goes down well in Naples, which is a wintertime haven for retired CEOs. Among Florida professional orchestras, Naples provides the longest season for its musicians, who have a 39-week contract with base pay of just under $50,000 for the 49 full-time players. Others, drawn from around the state, are paid per service.

Boreyko’s inaugural season as music director, during which he will conduct six of the nine masterworks programs, is heavy on the tried and true, much along the lines of his Oct. 23 and 25 season-opening “Welcome Andrey” program of Tchaikovsky (Capriccio Italien), Lalo (Symphonie espagnole, with violin soloist Robert McDuffie), and the Brahms First Symphony.

In his guest conducting of American orchestras, Boreyko has won plaudits for elegant, forceful interpretations of the standard repertoire, especially for works of Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and other Russians, but he also is at home with new music. In 2015, he will conduct the U.S. premiere of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 4 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Weaning the Naples audience from its customary diet of warhorses may not be a priority in the Boreyko game plan, but there are a few adventures in store, such as a commissioned work composed and performed by jazz pianist Uri Caine Dec. 11 and 13; and Gidon Kremer in Jan. 9-10 performances of the Violin Concerto of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Pole who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1939 and was championed by Shostakovich, and whose Holocaust-themed opera The Passenger had acclaimed runs this year at Houston Grand Opera and the Lincoln Center Festival.

Anu Tali is music director of the Sarasota Orchestra. (Peter Brenkus)
Anu Tali is music director of the Sarasota Orchestra. (Peter Brenkus)

Estonian leads Sarasota ‘journey’

The Sarasota population is similar to that of Naples, with plenty of affluent retirees, but the community’s cultural offerings are better developed and more diverse. Along with the Sarasota Orchestra, the scene features the highly regarded Sarasota Opera and Sarasota Ballet (both sometimes use the orchestra for performances), several strong theater companies, such as the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and a remarkable collection of old masters at the Ringling Museum.

Tali, an Estonian, made a good impression in her Sarasota debut last year leading a tidy, detail-oriented performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, drawing a strong contribution from the strings in the tragic finale. The upcoming season, billed as “A New Journey Begins” and featuring her on the podium for five of seven masterworks programs, is mostly a lineup of old reliables, from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. At least the Estonian connection will be at the forefront in the Jan. 29-Feb. 1 concerts that open with Tali’s countryman Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memorium to Benjamin Britten and include Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Stephen Hough in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

Michael Tilson Thomas heads the New World Symphony.
Michael Tilson Thomas heads the New World Symphony.

New World offers  fresh perspectives

For listeners with a taste for adventurous programming, Naples and Sarasota will not often be on the radar. For that in Florida, look to Miami Beach, where Michael Tilson Thomas presides over the New World Symphony, which he founded. Playing in a Frank Gehry hall, the orchestra is made up of recent conservatory graduates in pre-professional training. Highlights include Thomas’ season-opening concerts Oct. 11-12 with Antheil’s Jazz Symphony, and the Monn/Schoenberg Cello Concerto with soloist Tamás Varga; composer John Adams conducting his Saxophone Concerto with soloist Timothy McAllister on Dec. 6; and an April 25 performance featuring Anne Sophie Mutter in Berg’s Violin Concerto and Norbert Moret’s En rêve.

The New World Center, opened three years ago, is already famous for its “wallcasts,” with live video of selected concerts projected onto a vast outside wall. An excellent sound system is incorporated into the design of the surrounding park. Experiencing music with a picnic under the moon over South Beach is a real treat.

John Fleming covered the Florida music scene from 1991 to 2013 as performing arts critic for the Tampa Bay Times.