Robert Franz is one of those rare individuals that has seemingly boundless amounts of energy and ideas, but still retains a certain calm and composure. He’s a man with a mission. A mission to share his love of music with anyone and everyone — from third graders to those interested in other forms of the arts.
“My job is to present the music in as complete and as committed a way as I can,” said Franz, who is one of the five finalists for the position of music director for the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, and will lead the BSO concert this Sunday. “I don’t have a favorite composer. I can’t pick one, and I shouldn’t anyway. I want everyone to be able to be connected to the music we make. My opinions don’t factor into it. My goal is to help you to listen.”
Originally from North Carolina and currently the music director for the Boise Philharmonic in Idaho, Franz has made a career out of breaking down boundaries. Traditional classical music audiences love him for his technical aplomb and passion; new audiences are intrigued by his ability to make the music accessible in different, interesting ways. Just last week, Franz led programs with the Boise Philharmonic for 12,000 Idaho students in grades two through five.
“If kids listen to classical music in the curriculum, we can affect test scores without them learning the instruments,” said Franz. “It’s education based in active listening, rather than performance. The evidence is really out there that it helps in all areas of learning.”
Franz knows the effect early exposure to music can have on a young person. He was one of them. As an elementary school student in the 1970s in Charlotte, N.C., a helpful music teacher gave Franz his first cello.
“It really was by accident, in a lot of ways. My teacher asked me what instrument I would want to play, and I said cello,” said Franz. “I brought one home and spent four hours making sounds on it. I knew then that I was going to be a musician for the rest of my life. That hasn’t changed.”
Through high school and into college, Franz played cello and later oboe. At age 21 he took his first conducting course — which sealed the deal, in terms of his career.
“It’s the most natural, noncomplicated thing I’ve ever done, musically,” said Franz. “When it’s working at its best, I feel like a vessel for the music. It’s not about being in charge or having your way. It’s about channeling all that energy and communicating something to everyone.”
Sometimes, communicating the music means thinking outside the box. Franz loves collaborating with artists outside the classical music realm, as evidenced by his work with actors, painters, dancers and other creative people. Franz, also the music director for the Mansfield Symphony in Ohio, put together a special performance with that symphony and a group of local visual artists. While the orchestra rehearsed, painters created an original piece, which was videotaped during the process. The footage was then made into a time-lapse video, which was projected on a screen behind the orchestra while they performed during the concert. The resulting painting was then auctioned off for charity.
“It’s really a very simple idea,” said Franz. “All the best ideas are very simple like that. We thought, ‘what would be the visual representation of sound?’ And that’s what we came up with. I love collaborating in general. I think it helps people understand the music better if they can place it in a context that means something to them.”