Michael Francis’ history in music makes him a unique conductor 

Michael Francis, who conducts the San Francisco Symphony’s summer concerts, has unusual distinctions among maestros of the podium: a double-bass player, his career so far consisted of a series of sudden substitutions.

He also is young, but that’s less unusual these days with Alexander Prior, 18, at the Seattle Symphony and Lionel Bruingier, 25, an assistant in Los Angeles to Gustavo Dudamel, who made his own professional debut at 24.

In Francis’ case, young age is combined with an instrument unusual for a conductor, and his run of luck as a pinch hitter.

When he was still a bass player with the London Symphony, Francis frequently stepped in for Valery Gergiev when the Russian was late for rehearsals, or missed concerts entirely. In 2006, Francis first stepped out of the bass section to conduct a rehearsal of Shostakovich’s complex Symphony No. 4.

The next year, with only a 12-hour notice, he replaced Gergiev at a concert. Only a month later, John Adams canceled an appearance with the LSO and the go-to conductor was the bass player again, this time given a notice of two hours only.

Francis went international with a rescue mission in February, not only replacing Alondra de la Parra at the last minute with the Oregon Symphony, but performing the originally scheduled program without a change. A month later, Francis flew to Portland again, this time to replace Günther Herbig.

In Stuttgart, he came to the rescue of the Radio Symphony Orchestra, replacing André Previn for four concerts with Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Typically, Francis’ San Francisco debut in November, conducting the world premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s “Five Shakespeare Sonnets,” came as an emergency replacement for Jeffrey Kahane.

A substitute no longer, Francis has now landed a big job as chief conductor in Norrköping, Sweden. Past principal conductors there included San Francisco Symphony music director emeritus Herbert Blomstedt and Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst. Francis also made his debut with the New York Philharmonic.

In Davies Hall, Francis will show his versatility, with a repertoire that includes Gershwin, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and, eventually, Max Steiner’s score for the film “Casablanca,” which will be screened as an accompaniment to the live orchestra.

On July 10, Francis will conduct the orchestra at Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park, in a free concert featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, with Valentina Lisitsa as the soloist.

Another free concert is due in Stern Grove July 24, where the soloist will be Sara Davis Buechner in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”).


San Francisco Symphony

Conducted by Michael Francis

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, July 21-22, July 28; 2 p.m. July 17

Tickets: $15 to $70

Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

Scheduled programs

Thursday: Gershwin

Russian composers

Saturday: Beethoven

July 17: Mozart

July 21: Tchaikovsky

July 22: “Casablanca”

July 28: Handel, Vivaldi, Piazzolla

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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