Franz Picks Up the Stick 

Boise Philharmonic's new conductor is ready for his close-up

Last week, Boise Philharmonic's new music director formally introduced himself to the patrons of his newest symphony. In a three-day Boise blitz, Robert Franz made nice with board members, administrators of other arts organizations, and every arts reporter in town. He made a few things very clear: he's a fervent supporter of arts education, he's very excited to be adding Boise to his resume and he's not scared of Idaho's "extreme" weather.

"I'm happy. I'm totally happy here, but I've said that like 85 times. I'm sure people are like, 'We get it, you're excited.' But I am. I'm totally ready to go." And then he laughs a big laugh.

On a long, slender face, Franz's smile dominates physically, supported on the bottom by a slightly cleft chin. At 40, Franz has just a pinch of salt in his closely cropped dark hair. He speaks quickly, rarely hesitating to search for a word. Franz admits to being comfortable in large crowds, a confession that's a side note to his intention to be a talkative conductor, prone to explanatory speeches during performances. Standing before a handful of strangers awaiting introduction, Franz smiles big and bows slightly for comic effect prior to extending a hand. One on one, he moves easily among several personas: Franz the conductor, who proffers serious, analytical, jargon-riddled opinions and arguments; and the non-maestro Franz, with a hint of an East-Coast accent, a quick wit, a tendency to totally use the word "totally" and a big, confident laugh.

Boil it down to one telltale detail about Franz to get a sense of the man professionally and personally and you get the number four. Over the next year, four is the meaning of Franz's life; it's the number of symphonies over which he'll preside.

He'll finish his fifth season at Mansfield Symphony in Ohio this year and will serve out his contract as Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's resident conductor through 2009 in Buffalo, New York, where he lives. In June, he starts yet another job in Houston as the associate conductor. Do the math, and it totals 125 concerts over the next year. Franz says he doesn't get a week off until August 2009.

But Franz seems to be a sort of master of large-scale calculated chaos by harnessing the miniscule detail. He's managing an almost inconceivable travel schedule to make four gigs work over the next year. In his off time, he refurbishes homes. He's completed the work on his home in Buffalo, but putters around repairing his cabin in the woods of Vermont and just bought a new project in Columbus, Ohio—a two-apartment "steal" that's so dilapidated it didn't have plumbing when Franz acquired it.

Similarly, as conductor, Franz clearly sees the forest for the trees.

"My job is to motivate 70 to 75 people in front of me to all move in the same direction at the same time. There is that sense of the awareness of the big picture, the motivation of getting people to move all together."

Discipline, says Franz, is key to accomplishing that task. In his opinion, being a great artist is dependent mostly on being very disciplined, with only 10 to 20 percent of the artistic genius resulting from creativity. As the head of an orchestra—or four—Franz sees his role as disciplinarian in terms of discerning what he hears and then accurately reflecting that back to the musicians.

"The reason discipline is so important is so that we can better express the composer's intent and express the music. We can be more free and more passionate with our music making," says Franz.

It takes two words, however, to describe the nucleus of Franz's work: arts education.

As the only musician in his family, Franz says he learned from an early age to describe music in a way that non-musicians would understand. He learned how to talk about music from the outside in and communicate it to people. It's a skill he's honed over the years and surmises it's the genesis of his focus on arts education.

"I have a real passion and connection to education," he says. "I love that process of sharing information ... of kids—people of all ages—seeing the light bulbs go off when they all the sudden understand something."

Looking at arts education as simply prepping future audiences or ferreting out the musicians of tomorrow is an old-fashioned idea, Franz says. He has a more systematic approach to arts education. This year, Boise Philharmonic will begin an annual education program that correlates with writing skills students are learning in school. It's part of Franz's idea that arts education is more than just learning what the instruments are. In the mid-90s, Franz ran an experiment in which he put a woodwind quartet in residence at an elementary school. The result was significantly increased scores in reading and math. In effect, Franz says, introducing classical music into the curriculum bettered students' active reading skills.

"In my opinion, music—particularly live, classical music—has a place at the table of really educating young people, changing how their minds work physiologically and intellectually, changing how they think and how they perceive the world. If we do our job properly and with enough intensity and enough repeat connections with these young people, I think we can change how they think and how they learn and actually work in partnership with the school system," he says.

Another idea Franz thinks is outdated is the worry that classical music audiences are thinning while younger generations fail to replace older arts patrons. Franz says he doesn't buy into that idea.

"There is this idea that our audiences are getting older and they're going to all pass away and there aren't going to be any more audiences. That's been the theme of orchestras for 150 years," he says. "Now, by my calculation, there are some 200-year-olds sitting in the back of halls everywhere, who are barely hanging on," Franz says with one of his big laughs. "The truth is, there's a natural progression in this art form."

For Franz, heading up a symphony isn't about demographics, it's about sharing the music with anybody and everybody he can. Eventually as their children grow up and they realize more disposable income, that elusive 25- to 40-year-old demographic will put away the mountain bikes and head for the philharmonic. And if their arts education did its job, they'll return with a comfort level and a knowledge base of classical music.

Aside from a short visit to Boise in May, Franz won't return until the season starts next fall. As for the warning that it can get mighty cold in Boise during winter, Franz shrugs.

"People are like 'It's hot here in the summer,' and I say, 'I work in Houston in the summer.' And they're like, 'It's cold here in the winter,' and I say 'I live in Buffalo.' And they say, 'OK, never mind.' So bring all your extreme weather Boise, bring it to me." Big laugh.

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