(Photo: J Henry Fair)
22nd July 2021
Acclaimed conductor, Robert Franz, recognized as ‘an outstanding musician with profound intelligence’ has held to three principles throughout his career: a commitment to the highest artistic standards, to creating alliances and building bridges in each community he serves, and a dedication to being a strong force in music education. As Music Director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, Associate Conductor of the Houston Symphony, and Artistic Director of the Boise Baroque Orchestra, he has achieved success through his focus on each of these principles.
His appeal as a first-rate conductor and enthusiastic award-winning educator is acclaimed by critics, composers and audiences of all ages. Composer Bright Sheng praised Franz for his ‘extremely musical and passionate approach towards music making’. Franz is in increasing demand as a guest conductor, having collaborated with the Cleveland Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, North Carolina Symphony, Phoenix Symphony, and Italy’s Orchestra da Camera Fiorentinas. 2021 marks his debut with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. His versatility has led to performances with a wide array of artists, including James Galway, Joshua Bell, Rachel Barton Pine, Chris Botti, Idina Menzel and Judy Collins as well as his work with composers such as John Harbison, Jennifer Higdon and Jordan Pal. An eloquent speaker, Franz recently presented a TEDx Talk entitled Active Listening and Our Perception of Time.
In his eighth season as Music Director with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, Franz was recognized by The Windsor Endowment for the Arts with its Arts Leadership Award. Faced with the challenge of maintaining a vital arts presence in the face of a pandemic, highlights of the 2020/2021 season include two curated digital concert series that he led and hosted. Recent collaborations include the Windsor International Film Festival, Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor Public Library, Canadian Historical Aviation Association, and the University of Windsor.
Franz serves as Artistic Director of the Boise Baroque Orchestra where he curated and led two digital concert series during the 2020/2021 season. Under his leadership, the orchestra has collaborated with Grammy Winning tenor, Karim Sulayman and will undertake its first commercial recording project of Classical Oboe Concerti for Centaur Records featuring rising star oboist Bhavani Kotha.
This season Franz celebrates his 13th year as Associate Conductor of the Houston Symphony where he was recently honoured with the Raphael Fliegel Award for Visionary Leadership to celebrate his immense success in advancing the organization’s education and community engagement activities. The 2020-2021 season featured Franz leading the North American premiere of author Dan Brown’s musical children’s book, “Wild Symphony.”
As Co-founder and Conductor of the Idaho Orchestra Institute, now in its fifth year, Franz takes young musicians on an exploration of major orchestral repertoire that explores the complete musician.
In addition to his current posts, Franz served as Music Director of the Boise Philharmonic from 2008-2016, and the Mansfield Symphony (OH) from 2003-2010. When not on the podium he can be found on the slopes, skiing slowly and carefully, stretching in a yoga class, and non-competitively trying his hardest to win at a game of cards with his family.
Thanks so much for fitting me in. I really love these pieces, and I didn’t know them before now…
Concertos with four movements…
I know, right?
… and you are an oboist.
Well, was is probably better, I stopped playing when I started conducting full time back in the late 90s. So it’s been a little while, a couple of decades, but I’m an oboist at heart, for sure.
So is the music of eighteenth century Naples one of your specialisms?
OK, I’ll put it in context for you. I’ve been Music Director of the Windsor Symphony since 2013 – this is my eighth season here. The orchestra at its biggest has about fifty members, but we tend to hover around thirty. We do a lot of chamber orchestra repertoire, including a series of small concerts that include eighteenth century Baroque music. Two years ago the Boise Baroque Orchestra lost its Music Director and they asked me if I would step in as Artistic Advisor for a year. I did that and fell in love with it. Now I’m the Artistic Director of the Boise Baroque Orchestra! I conduct three or four concerts a year in Boise, mostly of eighteenth century repertoire.
The orchestra is a little bit of a hybrid. We play at pitch on modern instruments, but we use Baroque bows.
Oh that’s interesting.
Yeah. For string instruments, so much of the sound is generated from the bow. Switching the bows up made an enormous difference, not only to the sound of the group but also to our ability to explore historically informed performance.
This past year we did six digital concerts with the Boise Baroque Orchestra, and each one had a different theme. One happened to be the music of Naples, which is where this suggestion came from. In addition, the Windsor Symphony Orchestra planned two digital concert series. We did one in the fall, but the one that was going to be in the spring was cancelled when we went into lockdown. So now we’re going to do them in the fall for the next season.
Each concert is also paired with a food historian who’s going to teach the audience how to make a dish that would have been prevalent at that time. Then they can eat the food that the composer and audience would have had while they listen to the music. For instance, in the middle of the Eighteenth Century the Pizza Rustica was really popular in Naples. It was a no sauce pizza, about two inches deep, with layers of meats and cheeses. It gets cooked in the oven inside this pastry for three hours, and it’s this bubbling hot, amazing, thick dense meal.
So when I knew that you look for themes in your interviews I thought that I had done so much exploration of the music of Naples of late, this could be kind of fun. So I was really excited that you were intrigued by it. So I don’t consider myself a specialist in the music of Naples but it’s my latest obsession of many obsessions.
I get it. Having music and food together in a concert series is just awesome. They are the two holy pillars of life!
I agree with you completely! It was really fun. The guy that we partnered up with is a food historian at the University of Windsor, and his wife is a film professor there. So we’ve made all the ‘how to cook’ videos already, and just have to record the music in the fall to have a whole series to go in the winter.
That is such a good idea.
Isn’t that fun?
We’re doing a piece by a new Brunswick composer and we’re going to learn how to make new Brunswick stew – a real original recipe for it. And there are other pieces inspired by Marie Antoinette (or composed around that time). Her favourite drink was hot chocolate, which was super decadent in the Eighteenth Century. Getting chocolate was really hard, especially if you wanted to add sugar to it (which she did) and vodka (which she did).
That quite a mix of cultures going on there…
Isn’t it? If you know how difficult it was to get chocolate during that period, it makes the whole beheading thing make that much more sense.
So when you started researching eighteenth century Neopolitan music, what literature did you read? There doesn’t seem to be very much at all written about these composers.
Well there isn’t much from a literary standpoint, but I particularly love reading about the history. In the Eighteenth Century Italy was like a city state that was run by the Habsburgs. There were two factions of the Habsburgs (one Austrian and one Spanish) and they were constantly fighting with each other over who owned this land. This was common throughout Italy because it was made up of a bunch of small city states, and they were all fighting with each other. Through an intriguing set of circumstances two other things occurred in Naples. Firstly, it became a centre for visual arts and painting, and secondly there was a growing group of porcelain specialists. So there were a lot of arts there, but it was also one of the poorest city states in Italy and the living conditions were horrific. Earthquakes also happened all the time. It was a difficult place to be.
Despite that crazy combination of circumstances there was an opera house built in Naples that ended up being the biggest one in Italy at the time. That’s why the Pergolesi opera La serva padrona is so important, not only because it was the first comic opera but also because it really put a shining light on this opera house. There was an earthquake that shook it and it made it unstable. They fixed it over a year and then the following season Pergolesi wrote a tragic opera in three big acts to be performed there. I think the opera house folk felt like the audience needed to be amused in the intermissions, so Pergolesi wrote these two acts, each twenty minutes long for the comic opera La serva padrona (the maid who becomes a mistress). The serious opera doesn’t really get done anymore, but the comic opera was taken out and performed all over Europe. It really put Pergolesi on the map, along with his Stabat Mater.
Pergolesi actually died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, so he became like a myth in many ways. He wrote a chunk of music but not nearly as much music as people gave him credit for. This was because both his Stabat Mater and La serva padrona were printed and sold throughout Europe, so everybody had access to his music – it was a hot item. People would often put his name on music to sell it, and the famous Concerti Armonici (by Massenaer) were thought to be by Pergolesi for years and years.
Oh I see – it was a marketing ploy. It wasn’t just a mistake.
No, no. It was on purpose so they could sell more. The same thing happened with Mozart and Haydn, we have pieces by them that are wrongly attributed. You made more money if Mozart’s name was on it rather than someone like Josef Mysliveček from Prague. The most famous version of this by far is the Pulcinella Suite by Stravinsky. He believed that he was borrowing Pergolesi tunes and they weren’t by Pergolesi at all.
I think many people still don’t know that, even some Stravinsky scholars.
Correct. It’s bizarre isn’t it?
So all of that really helped to put Naples on the map. It was already a hotspot of teachers. Leonardo Leo (who was the composer of the cello concerto we’ll chat about) was one of the teachers at the conservatory there. Niccolò Piccinni was a student of his. It was well known that if you were a serious musician, you would go to Naples to study.
Knowing what Naples was like in the Eighteenth Century doesn’t necessarily help me conduct or interpret the score, but it does give me a bigger picture of the life of the composer and what their worlds were like.
I think audiences and musicians really do pick up on a lot more than you might imagine, and if you have an in-depth understanding of the piece it does come across.
Do you prepare for this type of music in a different way? Do you put on a different thinking cap?
Absolutely, no question. When you look at the notes on the page, if you don’t have a sense of where they come from (what period, what part of the world etc.) then you have no way of interpreting the ornaments and the shape of the music. When I think about mid eighteenth century music, technically that’s the Classical period, but it was really high Baroque leaning towards Classical. I think our view of Classical music is usually that it’s like Romantic music watered down, but I think of it as Baroque music clarified. There are a lot of things that Mozart wrote in his music that really were just Baroque traditions, like how the appoggiaturas and ornaments worked.
In French Baroque music, the bow stroke on every downbeat tended to be a down-bow no matter what. The Italians tended to go much more with the line, so you could have an up-bow or a down-bow at the beginning of each measure and there was more of a singing quality in the playing. Generally speaking French music was more percussive (although there are exceptions) and Italian music tended to be more lyrical in nature – the bow stroke was part of that.
Baroque bows are slightly shorter than modern bows and the weight distribution is different. The way you hold them is different, and the basic physics works differently. With a modern bow you’re pushing and pulling the sound, but with a Baroque bow it’s more like a fulcrum where there’s a release of the sound, so it’s never constant or sustained. Even in the most sustained playing it always has a lilt to it and a variance in the sound. If I’m conducting the Windsor Symphony with modern bows, I still ask them for sound that you would get if you were using a Baroque bow when playing this style or period of music.
The other thing that’s important is the role of vibrato. In Baroque music (and most music of the Eighteenth Century) vibrato was really just an ornament that was added to accentuate a colour or a harmonic change. In nineteenth century music and beyond it was a constant. So when I’m preparing a Piccinni overture or one of these concertos, I’m really imagining the sound with no vibrato and using the bow from the fulcrum perspective. And then, what kind of ornaments do I either bring out or add, and for what reasons? Part of that is harmonic, I’ll give you an ‘in the weeds’ component. Whether a grace note is on the beat or before the beat has 90% to do with its harmonic function. If the grace note represents a suspension of the sound – then it’s likely to be an appoggiatura that is pushed on the beat. If it’s more of a rhythmic component or has no real harmonic addition to the music, then playing it just before the beat in a quick manner makes more sense. I get into the weeds about it, but these little details make all the difference in the world.
When I study a score I like to figure out the phrase structure. Is it a 4+4 = 8 bar phrase? Is it a 4+3 (which Mozart used to make it feel like you were being cut off and moved onto the next idea)? Is it a 4 + 6 (which Beethoven used to create more anticipation)? That component is so important and part of learning the score. With these pieces by eighteenth century Italian composers you have to delve in and ask yourself how the ornaments work and what they bring out. Keep in mind that the basic goal of an ornament (I think it was Quantz who said this) is to get from one note to the next. It’s interesting because you assume an ornament is meant to ornament a note, but that’s not really its function. An ornament is designed to help you get from one place to another.
Yes, it has to have some kind of little engine in it.
That’s exactly correct. I think ‘does this appoggiatura, acciaccatura, mordent, half mordent or upside-down mordent help me get from point a to point b? Is there a reason for doing it?’ In a Brahms Symphony you don’t really have to go through that decision making process because he has decided all those things for you (they all exist in Brahms by the way). You have to uncover and discover them but they’re there to be seen, it’s not like you’re looking at a semi-blank page and trying to figure out whether to add or subtract something.
When you’re preparing concertos in this style do you look a lot into the instrumental technique or the difficulty of that particular piece for the soloist? Or do you leave that alone?
I feel it’s important that I understand what the challenges are, but I don’t like to get too in the weeds about knowing all the challenges, especially of an instrument that I am not familiar with. When I have a conversation with a soloist I prefer the idea of just bringing to the table what’s happening musically. I talk about what the composer is trying to say, and how to bring that out, but then I’ll also discover if certain parts are challenging because of x, y or z. So it’s a combination of those things, for sure.
When I recently did Leonardo Leo’s Cello Concerto in D minor, the soloist (Dr. Brian Hodges) played the third movement for me. I’m in awe of him and I love hearing his take on everything, but when he played the third movement I thought it felt too slow, and that the music should dance, not sing. So we did it in 4 rather than in 12, and all of a sudden the music had a whole new life to it and the bow felt different. We went back and forth and found a tempo that worked for both of us. I think for him it was an amazing discovery, and for me it made a lot more sense with what I was seeing on the page.
Oh that’s brilliant. I found a dissertation about these cello concertos by Leo. It said, ‘in the early baroque era the meter usually implied the speed of a piece and often the tempo markings were absent’ (Marinescu 2002:103). Is that another reason why you felt it was meant to be faster?
You know what? It is. It’s in 12/8 [sings melody at approx. dotted quaver = 70] – that’s the tempo that we ended up with. But if you do it at [sings again at approx. dotted quaver = 55], the music doesn’t dance at all – it doesn’t have any emotion, lilt, space or air. I think music basically has three options – it can dance, it can sing or it can do a combination of the two. Really all music fits into one of those three categories. Even though this particular movement was a slow movement, and they tend to sing, when you look through history (not just Baroque, all of music history) there are a lot of slow movements that sing but also have dance rhythms underneath. That’s on purpose, it gives it texture and interest, like there’s something that keeps the engine going and puts the two in relief of each other.
In that era the tuning for the cello was more flexible. The article I read suggests that ‘Leo’s writing implies a tuning of A-D-G-C’ (Marinescu 2002:91). Have you experimented with tuning at all?
No, I haven’t, but I should. We had standard tuning, but Brian did perform it on his new five-string Baroque cello.
Oh so he played did it on that? How fantastic.
This concerto is the only one we’re covering today that has a cadenza (at least on the IMSLP scores I could access). Did Brian do a cadenza as well?
Yes. In the third movement there is a small cadenza, and he wrote something to play.
Oh, he did his own thing…
He did, but it was short – it’s a short movement. The thing about this concerto having four movements (as you pointed out earlier) is that it is very much like a Baroque suite. Each movement is short with its own character and there’s not a lot of variation within each one.
You don’t get bored though, do you?
No, not at all. I agree with you, I think the work is refreshing, delightful and really interesting in many ways. Many scholars think of Leo’s music as being almost Haydnesque – it’s intelligent and thoughtful and witty. (Haydn takes the rap all the time for his music being less emotional than Beethoven, or even Mozart.) It’s not as emotional as what you would expect from an Italian composer – Pergolesi, for instance, is all about bringing up the emotion. Leo was more of a cool, artistic character.
This may be because there is a heatwave in the UK, but I actually think there’s something very cooling about Leo’s music! Maybe it’s because of the clarity – there was something very crystalline about it, almost like ice cubes.
But anyway, when you’re working through the score, do you consider thinking about who is taking the lead in each section (i.e. the soloist or conductor).
I think you never want to just follow a soloist because then you end up with a performance that is lacklustre. And you don’t want to lead the soloist because then you end up with a performance that doesn’t really have the character of the soloist. The sweet spot is a balance between those two, as well as anticipating the soloist. That’s really where you have to get your mindset. From my perspective, when I’m conducting a concerto I want to anticipate (based on what I’ve heard) what I think the soloist is going to do so that I can be right with them, fresh with them, not following them, not leading them, but simpatico with them. I think that’s the trick.
That’s why, more than orchestral conducting alone, conducting concertos really is quasi dependent on the relationship of the conductor and the soloist and the openness of the two human beings. I don’t have to know the person, go out for drinks with them or have a great personal relationship (although that’s lovely). It’s just that when you work with a person who is open and generous of spirit then magical things can occur. That’s really the key to any concerto conducting or performing – everybody has to be a giver in the process. You can’t have takers, it doesn’t work.
When you’ve conducted the Cimarosa Oboe Concerto does it make it easier or harder that you are an oboist and know the instrument so well?
It’s interesting that you ask that. I said to you before I don’t always like to know what’s most difficult in the piece. The trouble with me conducting an oboe concerto is that I know the ‘why’ of almost everything that happens. I try not to, but I tend to compensate for the oboist because I have a sense of what is and isn’t possible, what’s going on or what struggle they’re feeling. There’s a lot of that. But these days I can divorce myself from that because it has been a long time since I’ve played professionally. So yes, there’s some connection to it, but it’s more of a nostalgic connection at this point. But I just love conducting oboe concertos because I know the solo line so well that it’s an easy brain tease for me. I don’t have to wrap my head around it like I would a Beethoven piano concerto, I’ve played and practised the line so much that I have a real sense of what it’s about.
I spent my senior year of high school (Year 12) in England, and when I was there I had a private oboe teacher who had just graduated from the Guildhall School of Music. There is a 180 degree difference between oboe playing in England and America – they couldn’t be more different if they tried. The instruments are different, the reeds are different, the sound production is different… everything about it is different. We knew that I wasn’t planning on staying in England, so I didn’t want to switch my sound over to an English sound before going to an American university. So my teacher suggested that we spend the year going through all the major oboe literature. You could never do this if you were a violinist or a pianist, but there are three dozen pieces that are in this standard oboe literature. So she spent the year going through it all for the first time with me, which was amazing. When I got back to America and went to university and started to study all these pieces in depth, I had already a history and experience with all them.
So that’s why my year in England was so unbelievably positive for me, it was my first introduction to a whole world of repertoire. So that’s how the Cimarosa came to me. It’s one of the first concertos you learn as an oboist, I first played it when I was twelve or thirteen, but there was a lot that thirteen year old Robert was dead wrong about! So I just had to scrub it away and start over.
Cimarosa was interesting. He was, in his day, easily the most famous living Italian composer. He was the rage in Rome, Venice, Milan and the opera houses, and Catherine the Great herself brought him to St. Petersburg to be a composer in residence for four years. He was world famous. These days we don’t think of Cimarosa in the same light at all – his music is lovely and fun, but it’s not earth changing. But at the time he was a rock star. Later in life he went back to Naples to live and got involved with politics. He wasn’t happy with the ruling class so joined a group of people who fought to overturn the government. It didn’t work. Even though he was probably the most famous Neopolitan citizen, he was banished at the end of his life from Naples, never to return.
I know that has nothing to do with actually hearing, playing or conducting his oboe concerto, but it definitely gives you a sense that this piece is delightful, direct, very clear and very easy going. It was designed to be that way.
Do you use the Arthur Benjamin arrangement (see IMSLP reference fn 2)?
Is it difficult for the oboe player?
So you don’t have to worry about any specific sections, tempi etc.?
OK, I’m going to tell you a big secret, are you ready for this? Nothing that Cimaroso wrote was that difficult. That was part of the charm, he wrote music that was very accessible. He was basically a pop composer of the day. His vocal music was much more virtuosic because that was the practice of the day – to write pieces for singers that would really show off their virtuosity. But in the orchestral world? Nothing was too high, too low, too fast – I mean nothing.
But he’s still very inventive and there are lots of those quirky little details: those cadences leading into the next movement, little tempo changes etc.
Yes, that’s exactly right.
Do you do all the repeats?
Yes. That gives the soloist a chance to add some ornaments, make it a little more virtuosic and fun. That is usually all decided by the soloist. Occasionally I will say, ‘would you consider doing a different kind of ornament here?’ and give a specific reason. But I would never be so bold as to say to a soloist, ‘here are all the ornaments I want you to do when you do the repeat.’
Oh no. Some musicians don’t like to perform early music as there are so many interpretative decisions to be made. But others really love the fact that you’re working with more of a blank canvas. That was definitely how Danielle de Niese said she felt when I spoke to her about it. Is that the same for you as the conductor? Do you feel it gives you more freedom?
Well, I remember when I was in university and then started my professional career, I didn’t know a lot about historically informed performance. I remember thinking that I didn’t really love Telemann’s music, so I didn’t do much of it. There was a long period where I was conducting mostly full symphony orchestras and so it wasn’t even an option. It’s only been in the last ten years or so that I have gained such an appreciation, interest and intrigue into music of the Eighteenth Century in particular, but also the Seventeenth Century.
I’ve become so curious about unlocking that world that I have now fallen in love with the music of Telemann. There is something about his music that is, for me, unbelievably interesting and exciting. It has so many interesting angles in it. So it was a natural progression for me to suddenly realise that I hadn’t understood the depth of what was going on there. Now I think his music is amazing, but it really came with a lot of study and scholarship in order to understand what was going on and what exactly the dots on the page mean. So the world is opening up and I love that. The chapter now is ‘what in the world was going on in the Eighteenth Century?’ When I opened the door to Naples, how Cimaroso, Leo, Piccinni, Pergolesi all fit together was just extraordinary to me.
You obviously love learning.
Yes. What I love about this particular conversation is that it connects in with my most recent obsession and passion. Those keep meandering, but I love that because at this point in my life and career I don’t think in terms of a career ladder anymore. I think in terms of broadening my understanding, musicality and experiences. Being successful has less to do with vertical motion and more to do with being prepared so that when opportunities arise you can take advantage of them. That’s been my mantra, and why the music of Naples could pop up and I could just think, ‘OK, what’s around this corner? Let’s see’.
I was interested that you also included Wassenaer in this group of composers, even though he’s Dutch.
Well, Wassenaer wasn’t a professional musician, he was in the Dutch Navy. His music had a very Italian Pergolesi-like sound, with all of these suspensions. He was at a party with a violinist from London who wanted to publish his Concerti Armonici. Wassenaer said he could do it but not to put his name on them because he didn’t want people to know he wrote them. When the publisher got a hold of these pieces they thought they were by Pergolesi. They certainly would sell better if Pergolesi’s name was on them, so I’m sure there wasn’t a lot of research done to figure out who the composer really was, and they decided they would use his name.
When you hear them, you can easily imagine that Pergolesi could have written these pieces – they’re very quirky and super chromatic. I love them, everything about them is attractive to me. There is a darkness to Wassenaer pieces, I think, and something that’s Pergolesi-like about them.
How many musicians did you have for each part?
It was a full string orchestra. In Boise we had 6 firsts, 5 seconds, 3 violas, 3 cellos and a bass. We had a slightly smaller ensemble when we did them in Windsor.
Are there any particular conductors or recordings of this type of music/composers that inspired you?
Well, I am a huge fan (and always have been) of John Eliot Gardiner and his work, and Christopher Hogwood too. I would say those two are go-tos for me. But there are ensembles today that are really doing amazing things: Tafel Musik in Toronto, Apollo’s Fire in Cleveland, Portland Baroque Orchestra with Monica Huggett in Oregon… Whenever I can catch performances of them I do.
Generally Gardiner is brilliant in his music-making. This goes back to your original point, I think – you can really tell that he has an enormously composite view of the composer, the lifetime and the history. All of those things feed into his performances of these pieces and that’s huge for me, and very inspirational.
His podcast on Monteverdi was fantastic. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish?
I think this has been super-comprehensive. This was great, it was really fun to talk to you for an hour about this.
Oh, it was really fun for me too – I was really looking forward to it.
Marinescu, O. Leonardo Leo’s cello concerti: History, analysis, performance issues, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing 2002
 https://imslp.eu/files/imglnks/euimg/d/d0/IMSLP416425-PMLP93972-Leo_-_Concerto_violoncelle_r%C3%A9_mineur.pdf Leonardo Leo was a cellist himself and was one of the first to make the instrument popular in Italy.
 For full score (arr. Arthur Benjamin) https://petruccimusiclibrary.ca/files/imglnks/caimg/6/6d/IMSLP634809-PMLP592944-Cimarosa-Benjamin_score.pdf
 Concerto Armonici in F minor. https://ks.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/2/20/IMSLP501189-PMLP746889-Wassenaer.pdf
 Gardiner, J.E. (2020) Monteverdi and his constellation [Podcast] (accessed October 2020) Available on Spotify or at https://podtail.com/en/podcast/monteverdi-and-his-constellation/