Michael Francis, a young British conductor who also plays double bass with the London Symphony made his debut with the Seattle Symphony Thursday night. Though he had a small orchestra at his disposal, Francis made up for it with a program that was conceptually sound, challenging for musicians, and rewarding for listeners.
Francis’ rise to prominence has followed the same well-worn path that has promoted other virtually unknown maestros into the spotlight. Three years ago, Francis was recruited to the podium from the ranks of the LSO, when 12 hours before a concert Valery Gergiev pulled out. A month later, the John Adams pulled out of a concert he was to conduct with the LSO. Again, Francis was pushed to the podium. Today, Francis regularly acts as an assistant conductor with the LSO helping to prepare performances and with rehearsals when Gergiev can’t.
Thursday’s concert opened with a gem-like performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 and ended with Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, No. 45. In between were two 20th Century works. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, written for Benny Goodman, beloved by Igor Stravinsky, but exuberantly played Thursday by clarinet virtuoso John Manasse came first after intermission. Ending the first half of the concert, was Alfred Schnittke’s “Moz-Art a la Haydn.” Though tongue in cheek, the work bridged the Central European world of Mozart and Haydn via the Soviet Union. Schnittke builds this work out of fragments from Mozart’s obscure and incomplete pantomime music.
Schnittke mixes motifs, twists phrases, and layers instrumental voices cleverly. In a nod to Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, the piece begins in darkness and ends with the musicians walking off stage. Violinsts Emma McGrath and Elisa Barston were the stars of Moz-Art a la Haydn with parts that dominated the piece with droll spirit and virtuoso demands.
Across the entire program, Francis drew out microscopic details, subtle dynamics, and snappy tempos that sounded like they took weeks to perfect but were actually achieved over mere days. The clarity of Thursday’s performance contrasted sharply with Francis’ broad, sweeping instructions from the podium. The only disappointment of the evening was John Ceriminaro’s uneven playing in the final movement of the Farewell Symphony
Audiences have another chance to hear Francis conduct his Mozart, Haydn, Schnittke, and Copland program on Saturday. On Sunday, he leads the SSO in a performance of Debussy’s La Mer to accompany the Chicago Symphony’s Beyond the Score multimedia program for the same piece.